What do you call a veterinarian who only treats a single species?
Answer: a physician.
That’s a joke among many veterinarians, who understand very well that humans are animals, just like other animals, and that the wall of separation the medical profession has put up between “doctors” and “veterinarians” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
But we’d do ourselves a favor by dropping the pretense – in large part because we’d be a lot healthier for it. Animals of all species suffer from many of the same diseases and conditions, according to the new book Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing by Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiology professor, and writer Kathryn Bowers.
For example, they write that cancer is as old as the dinosaurs, breast cancer is common in cougars and kangaroos, but rare in goats and cows; bone cancer is common in wolves and bears; and leukemia in cats and cows.
And obesity, while endemic among humans, is common in other animals, too. (And not just the pets we overfeed). Tamarin monkeys, the authors write, have been seen to eat so many berries in one sitting that their intestines are overwhelmed. In fact, wild animals of many kinds have been getting fatter in recent years. And one reason for this may be the growing amount of artificial light coming from cities at night, which may be interfering with their circadian rhythms.
Almost every health condition that humans experience is to be found somewhere else in the animal world, including addiction and even self-harming(an excessive form of self-grooming, which is an activity that many animals use to soothe themselves.) The authors write:
“Studies looking at hair pulling, scab picking and nail biting all point to a calm, trancelike state that typically accompanies these small, automatic, self-soothing activities. … In a way, self-harmers are actually self-medicators. That’s because, paradoxically, both pain and grooming cause the body to release natural opiates, such as endorphins, the same brain chemicals that give marathoners their runner’s high.”
Almost every health condition that humans experience is to be found somewhere else in the animal world.
In fact, there’s an increasing understanding that we’re doing ourselves a real disservice by separating the fields of human and veterinary medicine. We are all part of one intricate ecosystem, each influencing the others all the time. And a new global strategy, called One Health, has as its mission “to promote, improve, and defend the health and well-being of all species by enhancing cooperation and collaboration between physicians, veterinarians, other scientific health and environmental professionals and by promoting strengths in leadership and management to achieve these goals.”
When it comes to managing the potential for huge global pandemics like bird flu, which is incubated largely in the horrendous factory farms of South Asia, veterinary medicine and human medicine simply can’t be separated.
“We now stand at the precipice of health care transformation where disease prevention and health promotion in people, animals, and our environment have become a critical strategic need,” writes Dr. Lonnie King, Director of the National Center for Zoonotic, Vector-borne, and Enteric Disease at the CDC.
Also, in the most practical of ways, how we humans treat other animals and their homes has a direct impact on our own lives and health.
One thing, not surprisingly, that’s noticeable in this initiative is that it’s largely about how understanding other animals can help us humans, and not so much about how we can help other animals. Yet to be seen is whether it will all just become another opportunity to exploit more animals for human benefit. In a letter to the New York Times, the President-Elect of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Douglas Aspros, writes:
I was thrilled to read an essay by a physician who understands that humans are a special case in nature only from our own parochial perspective. Veterinarians have known this for a very long time. Humans and animals (and plants and bacteria and viruses) inhabit the same biosphere and share the same risks and illnesses. The sooner our physician colleagues recognize our common biology the better, for humans, animals and the planet.
Not to make too picky a point, but in talking about “humans and animals,” Dr. Aspros falls right into the same trap of suggesting that we humans are not the same thing as “animals.”