Our Animal Natures

by Rebecca on June 13, 2012

in Animals in the News


AS an attending physician at U.C.L.A., I see a wide variety of maladies. But I also consult occasionally at the Los Angeles Zoo, where the veterinarians’ rounds are strikingly similar to those I conduct with my physician colleagues. Intrigued by the overlap, I began making careful notes of the conditions I came across by day in my human patients. At night, I combed veterinary databases and journals for their correlates, asking myself a simple question: “Do animals get [fill in the disease]?” I started with the big killers. Do animals get breast cancer? Stress-induced heart attacks? Brain tumors? How about shingles and gout? Fainting spells? Night after night, condition after condition, the answer kept coming back “yes.” My research yielded a series of fascinating commonalities.

Melanoma has been diagnosed in the bodies of animals from penguins to buffalo. Koalas in Australia are in the middle of a rampant epidemic of chlamydia. Yes, that kind — sexually transmitted. I wondered about obesity and diabetes — two of the most pressing health concerns of our time. Do wild animals get medically obese? Do they overeat or binge eat? I learned that yes, they do.

I also discovered that geese, gorillas and sea lions grieve and may become depressed. Shelties, Weimaraners and other dog breeds are prone to anxiety disorders.

Suddenly, I began to reconsider my approach to mental illness, a field I had studied during the psychiatric residency I completed before turning to cardiology. Perhaps a human patient compulsively burning himself with cigarettes could improve if his therapist consulted a bird specialist experienced in the treatment of parrots with feather-picking disorder. Significantly for substance abusers and addicts, species from birds to elephants are known to seek out psychotropic berries and plants that change their sensory states — that is, get them high. The more I learned, the more a tantalizing question started creeping into my thoughts: Why don’t we human doctors routinely cooperate with animal experts?

We used to. A century or two ago, in some rural communities, animals and humans were cared for by the same practitioner. And physicians and veterinarians both claim the same 19th-century doctor, William Osler, as a father of their fields. However, animal and human medicine began a decisive split in the late 1800s. Increasing urbanization meant that fewer people relied on animals to make a living. Motorized vehicles began pushing work animals out of daily life.

Most physicians see animals and their illnesses as somehow “different.” Humans have their diseases. Animals have theirs. The human medical establishment has an undeniable, though unspoken, bias against veterinary medicine.

While it rankles when M.D.’s condescend, most vets simply take a resigned approach to their more glamorous counterparts on the human side. Several have even confided to me a veterinarians’ inside joke: What do you call a physician? A veterinarian who treats only one species.

Read the whole thing at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/opinion/sunday/our-animal-natures.html?pagewanted=all

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