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Species-Spanning Medicine

In the book Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us about Health and the Science of Healing, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiologist who consults with the Los Angeles Zoo, delves into the many sicknesses we share with animals. (Editor’s note: For a review of Zoobiquity, see the October 2012 issue of Bark.)

Co-authored by Kathryn Bowers, the book points out that not only humans get breast cancer, but kangaroos, beluga whales, wallabies and sea lions—to name a few—do as well. Rhinos get skin cancer; gorillas get depressed; horses suffer from erectile dysfunction; and sexually transmitted diseases plague the non-human world as well, from syphilis in rabbits to chlamydia in koalas.

By looking at the big picture, we’re likely to further our understanding of species-spanning diseases, of the planet and of the environmental factors that contribute to ill health. Two annual conferences on zoobiquity have urged medical practitioners to do just that.

In terms of the latter, dogs, once again, serve as prime examples and perfect models. They sleep in our beds, share our food, lie on our flame-retardant-treated couches and frolic on our insecticide-treated lawns. When we go for a walk, it’s usually with them at our sides or pulling us along behind them.

They may soon lead the way in science as well, as rodents take a back seat when it comes to research examining the role environmental factors, such as secondhand smoke and household chemicals, play in causing disease. While much of it was going on years before the AMA-AVMA declaration was announced or the term “zoobiquity” was coined, research involving dogs (and cats) is increasingly looking at the link between pollutants and cancer.

On top of the fact that the canine genome is 80 to 90 percent similar to that of the human, dogs are constantly at our sides, making them perfect candidates for studying not just cures but also, causes.

Since dogs are such accessible and efficient, not to mention friendly, models, the question arises (or at least ought to): should one health/one medicine/zoobiquity—and more particularly, the view of dogs and other animals as sources of solution to our own diseases—raise animal welfare concerns?

Despite their all-inclusive, holistic and harmonious sounding names, none of the calls for a species-spanning approach to medicine state that all animals are our equals, or that their value parallels that of humans. Only that they get many of the same diseases we do.

As cures come closer and as dogs are increasingly seen as the road to such cures, could our zeal lead to what animal-welfare advocates might see as reckless driving?

The book Zoobiquity points out that in virtually all of the examples it uses, animals involved in the research were already sick. When, on ABC’s “Nightline,” Natterson-Horowitz was asked if the concept could lead to testing on healthy animals—if the Hippocratic Oath of “do no harm” should apply, for instance, to hippos—she replied, “I can’t give you a simple answer, because it’s a very complicated, nuanced question.”

Breen, for his part, doesn’t hesitate. “We don’t induce cancers in dogs. The key issue about cancers, and many genetic diseases in our dogs, is that these are all spontaneous conditions … All the dogs in our study are part of a family, sharing their homes and their lives. The path to discovery involving cancer and our dogs is one we walk along side-by-side with the owners.

“We have access to state-of-the-art technologies to ask key questions, but these are worthless without the willingness of the dog-owning community to collaborate by submitting cancer specimens from their dogs. By building a strong relationship with pet owners, and realizing that their pets are like family members, like a child … it actually means the chances of ever inducing disease are less. I just can’t see it happening; it wouldn’t happen in my lab, let’s put it that way.”

Breen’s bigger fear, when comes to biomedical research, “is that all this will raise people’s hopes too high and too soon.”

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