How Looking to Animals Can Improve Human Medicine

In a new book, UCLA cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz reminds us that humans are animals too. Now, if only other doctors could think that way

Studying animals can help greatly with the advancement of human medicine. (Richard Hutchings / Corbis)

If humans and animals experience some of the same injuries, diseases and disorders (and they do), then why don’t doctors more often seek the advice of veterinarians and animal experts?

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It is a good question, and one that Barbara Natterson-Horowitz asks in her new book, Zoobiquity, co-authored by Kathryn Bowers.

A cardiologist at the UCLA Medical Center, Natterson-Horowitz serves on the medical advisory board of the Los Angeles Zoo. In this role, she is occasionally called on to help examine chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and other exotic animals with heart conditions. When Cookie, a lioness at the Zoo, for instance, developed pericardial tamponade, or a build-up of fluid in the sac around its heart, Natterson-Horowitz helped a team of veterinarians, veterinary surgeons and cardiothoracic anesthesiologists drain it. She used the same procedure she would for a human patient.

According to the cardiologist, the fact that human doctors do not reciprocate by seeking the expertise of veterinarians and comparing their patients’ cases with those of animals is a “major blind spot.”

“Engineers already seek inspiration from the natural world, a field called biomimetics,” says Natterson-Horowitz. “Now it’s medicine’s turn.”

What is zoobiquity?

Zoobiquity is the fusion of evolutionary biology and veterinary science with human medicine. Kathyrn Bowers (my co-author) and I are bringing together two cultures, animal medicine and human medicine, so we wanted to coin a word that brought together two cultures. We brought together zo, which is a Greek word for “animal” and ubique, which is Latin for “everywhere.”

When did it first become apparent to you that doctors and veterinarians should work together?

In 2004, I began spending time with veterinarians on rounds at Los Angeles Zoo, watching them take care of their patients, and I realized that there is a parallel universe of medical practice, of which many physicians are fairly unaware. That led to a very broad, open-minded question about how extensive the overlaps are in the critical syndromes of animals and humans.

So, what are some of those afflictions that humans and other animals have in common?


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