'Zoobiquity': 7 Diseases Animals Share With Humans

A new book looks at the health links between animals and humans.

ByABC News
June 12, 2012, 12:36 PM

June 12, 2012— -- intro: Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz is a sort of modern day Dr. Dolittle.

For the past six years, the UCLA cardiologist has been consulting with the Los Angeles Zoo to help treat diseases found in animals. Natterson-Horowitz said she was surprised to learn how much human and veterinary medicine have in common.

"Animals suffer from almost all of the diseases that human beings do, but veterinarians and physicians never talk about this," she said. "Physicians have not typically, traditionally, seen veterinarians as their clinical peers and that's unfortunate."

Her work became the focus of her new book, "Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us about Health and the Science of Healing," which she co-wrote with science writer Kathryn Bowers. The book calls for an approach to medicine that crosses the species barrier. It argues that studying diseases found in both a human and an animal could save both lives.

"Do animals get cancer? Do animals get heart disease? Do animals maybe eat in ways that make them obese? And are there ways that they naturally have to take the weight off as being animals on the planet? And what I realized is that we are much more similar to other creatures, than we are different," Bowers said.

Natterson-Horowitz's work began after she attended a sleepover at the L.A. Zoo with her young daughter. She struck up a conversation with some of the veterinarians who ended up enlisting her help in cardiac cases.

Here are a list of some of the diseases found in both animals and humans Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers talk about in their new book.

quicklist: 1category: title: Heart Diseaseurl: media: 16549915text:One of Natterson-Horowitz's first experiences dealing with animal patients came when she examined Cookie the lioness, pictured here. The big cat had been diagnosed with fluid in the sac around heart -- a potentially fatal condition.

Natterson-Horowitz said what amazed her most was that the zoo veterinarians made Cookie's diagnosis not with a battery of expensive tests as they would at UCLA. Instead it was old fashioned observation, like they used to teach in medical school.

Veterinarians, she said, are the ultimate general practitioners,dealing with a wide range of species including mammals, reptiles and insects. Also, unlike human patients, the animals can't describe their symptoms to their doctors. The veterinarians have to be keen observers.

"They were making this diagnosis through careful observation, body position, respiratory rate, eating patterns and they were right," she told "Nightline."

After that experience, Natterson-Horowitz said she began looking at her human patients differently.

In "Zoobiquity," the authors note that animals can experience heart attacks and many species can be frightened to death. Sudden cardiac death, a leading cause of death in humans, can also have "a fear trigger," Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers wrote. However, they also acknowledged that physicians have been "skeptical of linking high emotion and cardiac death in humans."

quicklist: 2category: title: Breast Cancerurl: media: 16550371text:According to Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers, certain types of breast cancer have been found in a number of mammals.

Their list includes jaguars, cougars, tigers, sea lions, kangaroos, wallabies, beluga whales, alpacas and llamas.

Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers note that the only group of mammals in which breast cancer is rarely found are the "professional lactators," meaning dairy cows and goats.

quicklist: 3category: title: Skin Cancerurl: media: 16549943text: Dr. Curtis Eng, the Los Angeles Zoo's chief veterinarian, said the zoo has come to rely on human specialists like Natterson-Horowitz to help treat its animals.

"There are a lot of medical conditions that we just don't know enough about to treat the animal fully," he told "Nightline."

So when Rhonda the rhino, pictured here, was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, a common type of skin cancer, on her horn, the zoo brought in one of UCLA's top oncologists. Rhonda even underwent surgery to remove it and is now cancer free.

"This is a perfect example of how the human field and veterinarian field come together," Eng said. "And [Rhonda] is so appreciative."

quicklist: 4category: title: Osteosarcomaurl: media: 16550527text: Osteosarcoma, a common type of bone cancer that forced Ted Kennedy Jr. to undergo a leg amputation in 1973, is the leading cause of death in golden retrievers, Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers wrote in their book "Zoobiquity."

This disease has also been found in the bones of wolves, grizzly bears, camels, polar bears, some reptiles, fish and birds, according to the authors.

quicklist: 5category: title: Obesity and Diabetesurl: media: 16550296 text: Zoo animals not only can suffer from obesity, but diabetes is fairly common, in part because the animals eat food that has been genetically modified for human consumption.

For example, Dr. Curtis Eng said the Los Angeles Zoo's bananas are very different than bananas found in the wild and can affect the animals' diet.

"They're genetically designed to be more flavorful," he said. "They probably have more calories than the bananas that you are going to find in the wild."

In their book, Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers wrote that various animals in the wild will experience binge-eating, secret-eating, nocturnal-eating and food-hoarding, which could suggest a link between humans and "ancestral eating strategies."

quicklist: 6category: title: STDsurl: media: 16549627text: Atlantic bottlenose dolphins can suffer from genital warts, baboons can get herpes, syphilis is rampant among rabbits, just to name a few sexually-transmitted diseases affecting animals that Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers note in their book.

"Wild animals don't practice safe sex," Natterson-Horowitz said. "Of course they get STDS."

In fact, an epidemic of sexually transmitted Chlamydia has devastated koala populations in Australia. Wildlife biologists Down Under are so concerned about it, they are working on a vaccine for Chlamydia in koalas. There is currently no Chlamydia vaccine for humans.

At the same time, Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers wrote that 1 in 4 humans worldwide will die of an STD.

quicklist: 7category: title: Erectile Dysfunctionurl: media: 16549848text: Horses can experience erectile dysfunction, the authors said, but there's no Viagra-equivalent for them. Instead vets take a more holistic approach.

"I found that veterinarians are more comfortable talking about the sexuality of their animals then physicians sometimes are," Natterson-Horowitz said. "We are told in medical school to talk with our patients about their sexuality, but sometimes it's easier to talk to a patient about whether they have chest pain walking up a flight of stairs or not, then immediately getting into their sexual life."

Through her research, Natterson-Horowitz said stallions not only have been found to experience erectile dysfunction, they can have sexual dysfunction if they were bred too young or have an upsetting first sexual experience with a mare.

"How the foals were raised and how they were introduced to sexuality and how that could have an impact later in life," she said.

But acknowledging the similarities between humans and animals from a medical perspective does have bigger implications. How does the "Zoobiquity" approach apply, for instance, to the controversial issue of animal testing?

One could argue "Zoobiquity" is an argument for more animal testing, because of the similarities among different species, or "Zoobiquity" could be the basis for a moral argument against animal testing, because we share more in common than we think with the animal kingdom.

Should the Hippocratic Oath -- to do no harm -- apply to hippos? Natterson-Horowitz refused to say.

"I can't give you a simple answer," she said, "because it's a very complicated, nuanced question."

But, she argued, doctors and veterinarians should have a lot to teach each other.