Zoobiquity – making sense of a connected world.

By: Adana Mahase-Gibson 

Bet’cha didn’t know that cute koalas get chlamydia. Breast cancer, according to World Health Organisation (WHO), is the most common cancer in women. Breast cancer can also affect jaguars, kangaroos, dogs and beluga whales.  Clinical depression and eating disorders are seen in gorillas as well as humans.

These are a few examples of the parallels in human and animal health. They are explored in depth in a fascinating book, “Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health” written by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, M.D., a Professor of Medicine in the Division of Cardiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Kathryn Bowers, a science journalist.

What is Zoobiquity?

The term was coined by the authors. They squish together two words; zoology, the study of animals and animal life and ubiquity, meaning everywhere. Zoobiquity’s website explains, “Zoobiquity springs from a simple but revelatory fact: Animals and humans get the same diseases, yet physicians and veterinarians rarely consult with one another. Zoobiquity explores how animal and human commonality can be used to diagnose, treat, and heal patients of all species.”

Making sense of human and animal connections

As a One Health practitioner and a Veterinarian, I see zoobiquity as another set of terms and ideas that help us make sense of the increasingly connected nature of our health. There are many parallels in human and animal health. Is this a revelation? Certainly not. Evolutionary biologists, veterinarians, ecologists, comparative pathologists and those interacting with both humans and animals understand we share common ancestry. It’s obvious that a chicken or pig can spread diseases to humans. Similarly, non-infectious diseases such as diabetes, obesity and depression show up in both human and animals.  Zoobiquity’s website points out, “Veterinarians see all these conditions in animals. They treat them in a vast range species—including pets like cats and dogs but also birds, fish, snakes, and wild animals too. And they have ways of addressing them that human doctors don’t know about. Zoobiquity encourages patients, doctors, dentists, and psychologists to access the vast, untapped information and experience of veterinarians and wildlife biologists…and of the animals, living, playing, mating, and healing in their natural environments.”

Human Doctors usually don’t step out of their batting crease. Typically, collaboration between human and animal doctors is rare. Generally, we stick to the maxim that there are people diseases and animal diseases. This is a narrow-minded view of health. To better understand our own health and fragility, our cousins living just down the evolutionary street can teach us a lot. Zoobiquity suggests an interdisciplinary approach when looking at disease. “Drawing on the latest in medical and veterinary science—as well as evolutionary and molecular biology—Zoobiquity proposes an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to physical and behavioral health, including cardiology, gastroenterology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and many other sub-specialties.”

Health commonalities

In a New York Times article, Dr. Natterson-Horowitz recounts her experience working on a variety of human maladies. She had also consulted on occasion with the Los Angeles Zoo where she was struck by the similarity between veterinarian’s rounds, and the rounds of medical doctors in human hospitals. Intrigued, she asked some questions: “Do animals get (fill in the disease)?” She explored from melanomas to heart problems, and case upon case indicated yes; animals and humans share health issues. Chapters in the book demonstrate this by looking at a human disease or condition and its animal counterpart. The book starts off with a typical human condition; fainting. On the animal side, some doggies experience fainting (the medical term is vasovagal syncope) even at the sight of a needle. The physiological response in both humans and animals is due essentially to the flight or fight mechanism. Another chapter, “Grooming Gone Wild”, looks at human self-harm (called cutting) and compares it to compulsive behaviours in animals such as dogs who obsessively gnaw or lick themselves. The book is full of compelling case studies from addiction to cancer that show parallels between human and animal worlds. The term, “We are all animals” takes on a whole new meaning.

Zoobiquity, like One Health or EcoHealth, rests on collaboration across sectors. These approaches offer hope for many of the global health issues we are facing. I encourage those of us who are passionate about health to delve deeper. To my fellow medics, both human and animal, appreciate and embrace our evolutionary links; our undeniable connection to the animal kingdom. Our human health is intimately connected to and dependent on healthy animals and a healthy environment.

About the writer: Dr. Adana Mahase-Gibson is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) and a Project Management Professional (PMP). She works on Ecohealth/One Health issues to improve the health of people, animals and the environment.  Email: caribbeanonehealth@gmail.com

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