Vets and Doctors Don't Usually Talk to Each Other. Zoobiquity Is Trying to Change That
|UCLA's Barbara Natterson-Horowitz leads a discussion at the Zoobiquity conference, in front of the L.A. Zoo's gorilla enclosure.|
Clad in a white coat, teal scrubs and leather clogs, the doctor describes the case to the group. He explains that 27-year-old Rosie had painful periods and trouble conceiving. "She just wouldn't get up in the morning, and she wasn't eating or drinking during her periods," he says. After a sonogram and consultation, the medical team did what it could: surgery to remove the uterine fibroid.
This patient, though, is different from the hundreds of others the doc has treated: Rosie's a 130-pound orangutan at the Los Angeles Zoo.
If her case sounds familiar, it's because animals and humans often have the same afflictions. Some experts believe that increasing communication between veterinarians and physicians might benefit all animals, even the human ones. That's the idea behind Zoobiquity, a second-of-its-kind conference held two weeks ago at UCLA and the Los Angeles Zoo.
Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, who started the Zoobiquity movement and published a book by the same name in June with science writer Kathryn Bowers, tells the audience of nearly 200 veterinary and medical professionals that the conference is "a living laboratory. Not only is this conference interprofessional and interdisciplinary, it's also interspecies."
A cardiologist by training who grew up in L.A., Natterson-Horowitz is a petite brunette with boundless energy. Her interspecies "aha moment" came when she was asked to do imaging on primate hearts at the L.A. Zoo. When she'd finished echocardiograms of a chimp's heart, she put down the probe, startled by the nearly identical cardiac pathology in the chimpanzee and human patients she cares for.
"Then I was surprised that I was startled," she says. "It should be obvious that animals and humans would share the same diseases ... but physicians don't usually consider this because human and veterinary medicine are such separate fields."
She started looking into the maladies suffered by animals and humans and was struck by how similar they were: Diabetes, STDs and even psychiatric conditions all appear in medical studies of animals, as well as people. The line of inquiry is not new -- a movement known as One Health One Medicine has tried for decades to bring together cross-species medical professionals -- but the previous efforts have been led by vets or public-health practitioners and focused on zoonoses, diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans. Natterson-Horowitz brings to the project a new energy and new physician-led focus.
During the morning sessions at UCLA, doctors and vets presented cases side by side. In a session about osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that happens in only about 450 humans per year but around 8,000 pet dogs, the two professionals agreed that companion animals like dogs were an important model for understanding and treating the cancer.
Studying naturally occurring illnesses in animals can shed light on the same disorders in humans. (This approach differs from what happens in the laboratory, where animals are typically genetically modified to carry human disease.) The limb-saving techniques used to maintain human quality of life after bone cancer were pioneered in pet dogs that came down with the disease themselves. Studying the cases together may lead to new insights: The cancer occurs most often in large breeds of dogs, while in humans, it's most prevalent in fast-growing teenagers.
Additionally, zoonoses have become a major concern. When West Nile virus first appeared in 1999, it was a wake-up call for the vet and physician communities, says Tracey McNamara, professor of pathology at Western University of Health Sciences' College of Veterinary Medicine in Pomona.
"We were completely unprepared to deal with a virus across species lines, and we missed many opportunities to work together," McNamara says. "When it comes to emerging zoonoses, we're all in the same boat. After all, the next emerging virus may be closer than you think."
The idea of Zoobiquity goes far beyond infections that jump from animals to humans. A recent United Kingdom study showed that the degree to which dogs are overweight is related to the body-mass index of their owners; indeed, pets begin to resemble their humans' girth.
Conference speakers also discussed the similar instances of bullying and self-injury in the animal and human world. OCD behaviors, for instance, might be akin to overgrooming in animals, which happens when they're stressed out -- both are self-soothing techniques gone awry.
Physicians also can learn something from veterinarians. Animals, especially those in zoos, try to hide their illnesses or pain until the problem becomes serious. Since taking a preoperative work-up from a rhino or a boa constrictor is nearly impossible, zookeepers must use all their powers of observation to understand what's going on with their charges.
"Zoo veterinarians are the ultimate general practitioners," Natterson-Horowitz says. "They treat a wide spectrum of animal species, from reptiles to mammals to birds -- and at times they may be pediatricians, gynecologists, gerontologists, surgeons. They are smart, collaborative and holistic in the sense that when they're looking at a patient, they talk about all aspects of health, including nutrition, behavioral, social and sexual issues. What we aspire to be as physicians, they are already doing."
As the conference participants drank wine and beer and munched on canapés outside the new reptile hall, some of the zoo vets talked about an emerging role for zoos. "We can't do it all ourselves, and we need help from our medical colleagues. The idea of being Dr. Doolittle of everything, and a specialist in nothing, is some people's reality," Dr. Darin Collins, director of animal health programs at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, says.
When the official program ended, some of the vet students from UC Davis rushed back to their bus to return to the airport. Many of the medical students stayed, however, and wandered around the reptile exhibit, specially opened for the event. As they gazed at the rattlers, boas and alligators, they could be heard wondering aloud about the bodies and illnesses of these patients, not so different from the ones they were used to treating.