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Koala chlamydia and Doberman OCD: the human-animal disease crossover

New book 'Zoobiquity' asks, what can humans learn from animal health?
New book 'Zoobiquity' asks, what can humans learn from animal health?
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When it comes to disease and a species' "cause of death," animals and humans may share a lot of the same paperwork.

"German shepherds get the same kind of cancer that recently took the life of Steve Jobs," points out Dr. Barabara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiologist at UCLA. "Gorillas and turkeys have torn aortas, the largest artery in the body. Things like STDs — koalas in Australia are in a big epidemic of chlamydia that's threatening their very survival."

Even diseases like diabetes and metabolic syndrome she says strike "monkeys, miniature ponies and even dragonflies."

"Zoobiquity," a new book co-authored by Natterson-Horowitz and the science writer Kathryn Bowers, makes the case that if doctors spent more time with veterinarians, it would lead to a better understanding of human illness.

Yet, the authors claim, many medical professionals are hesitant to view veterinarians as their "clinical peers" — something that wasn't true a century ago. Animals for food, animals for carriages, animals for carrying our bags (and our selves) used to be an everyday occurrence. But as people flocked to cities and animals stayed on the farm, the two professions that treated them seemed to bifurcate as well.

It was during a visit to the Los Angeles Zoo to perform cardiac ultrasounds that Barbara Natterson-Horowitz decided to touch a toe across the vet/doctor line.

"I was listening to the veterinarians talk about their patients, go on rounds with them," the cardiologist recalls. "And their rounds sounded a lot like my rounds at UCLA. Even behavioral, psychological things."

Like what, you ask? Vets have horror stories involving OCD in dobermans, anorexia nervosa in pigs, birds feather-plucking to cause self-harm — and sexual dysfunction in stallions.

"They give the stallions a three-mount rule," says Bowers. "And if they tried three times and it's just not working, they take them back to the barn." She pauses to laugh. "We learned a lot at the horse farm."

Even with the crossover, wildlife biologists and veterinarians are still rarely consulted by medical professionals — and when physicians think of animals, diseases and people, the co-authors insist that their minds go straight to the lab. Not to therapy.

"It's easy for us to think of humans being the center of everything," Bowers summed up. "But disease is ancient, and our position to everything in the world is connected.

Read an excerpt of Zoobiquity


Dr.Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, cardiologist at UCLA
Kathryn Bowers, science author.