More Than Mere Animals

Lena J. Weiner, November 1, 2016

While volunteering at the Los Angeles Zoo, cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, MD, discovered that some ailments aren't just part of the human condition—they are zoobiquitous.

This article first appeared in the November 2016 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, MD
Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, MD

When the Los Angeles Zoo asked Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, MD, professor of medicine and cardiologist at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, to consider volunteering her cardiovascular expertise, she didn't expect that it would change her life; she was just excited to try something different and lend her knowledge to the zoo's veterinarians. But that changed quickly when she began to observe the number of medical similarities between humans and animals.

Consulting on animal patients as diverse as chimpanzees, lions, and California condors, Natterson-Horowitz observed a number of conditions—including heart disease, breast cancer, melanoma, arthritis, and diabetes—that many healthcare professionals attribute to poor lifestyle choices in humans. She coined a term—zoobiquity—to describe these interspecies health similarities and the fact that animals and humans suffer from the same diseases. In June 2012, Natterson-Horowitz, along with science writer Kathryn Bowers, published a book on animal-human health parallels, Zoobiquity.

On what physicians can learn from veterinarians: As I delved into this work, I became aware of the tremendous overlap in animal and human pathology and found that veterinarian medicine has much to offer physicians and other human health practitioners. There is a great deal for physicians to learn from animal patients about reaching human patients. This is important, because it turns out that many of these so-called diseases occur in animals and are not disorders that are unique to humans.

On reducing the stigma of mental health issues: Autism, PTSD, self-injury, eating disorders, and compulsive disorders are not unique to humans. Beyond physical illness, awareness of psychopathology in animals can help advance our understanding of mental illness in humans and potentially reduce the stigma associated with many psychiatric conditions. The increased awareness of the natural occurrence of anxiety, self-injury, and eating problems, for example, can help shift the shaming and self-recrimination that so many human patients experience when trying to understand their issues. I'm very interested in writing and speaking about comparative psychopathology as a way of penetrating the stigma problem; these disorders are part of the natural world and have natural causes.

Lena J. Weiner

Lena J. Weiner is an associate editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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