By Kris Kramer
My backyard is a haven for wildlife. Neighbors’ chemically-enhanced lawns drive critters here: an oasis of dandelions, bird-feeders, fresh water, tall trees, thick bushes, and a deck to hide under. Rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, moles, deer, and a wide variety of birds (chickadees, cardinals, woodpeckers, finches, and hawks, to name a few) visit and entertain while I eat breakfast every morning.
A few months ago, one particular squirrel caught my eye. At first I thought he had simply overstuffed his mouth with nuts and seeds because his cheeks looked as if they were about to burst open. Upon closer inspection, I realized this poor fellow was covered with tumors. Even his tail was balding, and his eyes had swollen shut leaving only his other senses to find food and navigate his way.
During the day, he’d sprawl out on the deck and lay flat on his belly--legs spread like an eagle. The sun would warm his swollen body. Every few seconds one of his legs would tackle yet another itch. I doubted his discomfort was ever alleviated.
How could this innocent creature have such disfiguration? What other illnesses inflict wild animals? Could animals contract cancer or depression? Surely, there are some conditions that are unique to humans.
Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, cardiology professor at UCLA, investigated these very questions. Her interest in connections between human diseases and those found in animals began after a call from the Los Angeles Zoo for a consult on an emperor tamarin in heart failure. Instead of focusing on what’s different between humans and other animals, Natterson-Horowitz began looking for similarities and found them: “The human genome is 98.6 percent similar to that of chimpanzees.” As a medical doctor, she got excited at the prospect of finding out if the work veterinarians were doing could be used to aid physicians with their patients.
The results of her findings are documented in her newest book—Zoobiquity, co-authored with Kathryn Bowers—where Dr. Natterson-Horowitz consulted veterinarians to discover similarity after similarity between human and animal conditions both physically and mentally.
Jaguars get breast cancer. Penguins and buffalo have been found with leukemia, dinosaurs with gout, arthritis, and cancer. Wild chimpanzees have been known to die of depression, some octopuses and stallions self-mutilate just as cutters (people that intentionally cut themselves) do.
So, why aren’t more human and animal doctors working together? After all we are animals. Dr. Natterson-Horowitz speculates that a superiority complex may be at play. There is a stigma surrounding this topic. Human doctors, as Dr. Natterson-Horowitz confides, think they’re “better than” doctors that treat non-human animals.
But this attitude didn’t always exist. Over a century ago, communities frequently had one doctor, and if you were a living creature with wings, scales, hooves, or two legs and opposable thumbs, you were treated by the same care-giver. The division of human and animal doctors occurred around 1900 when cities started to grow. Urban versus rural communities began to form. As one might imagine, there was more money and prestige in treating the top of the food chain. This created further distance between physicians and veterinarians.
In 2007, two men challenged this separation: a veterinarian, Dr. Roger Mahr, and a physician, Dr. Ron Davis. The duo compared their experiences and found a significant overlap of diseases: cancer, diabetes, effect of secondhand smoke, illnesses spread between species such as the West Nile virus, and more.
The team solicited others in the medical community to join forces, but their recommendations (even though Dr. Davis was the president of the American Medical Association and Dr. Marh headed the American Veterinary Medical Association) fell on deaf ears. The stereotype that human disease differs from animal disease was too ingrained.
Finally this stereotype is losing its grip. Studies are being set up to learn more about fertility in the houbara bustard (a North African bird), addictions of wallabies to opium (they raid opium fields in Tasmania), and dogs to hallucinogenic toxins found on the backs of Texan frogs, obesity in zoo animals, and other issues such as heart disease, sexual potency, and cancer.
In the U. S. alone, cancer takes the lives of almost 600,000 people, about a million dogs, and other household pets and zoo animals such as cats, rabbits, parakeets, reptiles, and horses every year. Wild animals are not free of this deadly infliction: Cancer has been found in sea turtles, rhinoceros, Tasmanian devils, prairie chickens, barred banditcoots, and this is just the beginning of the list! Even insects and plants aren’t safe—although plants only get tumors that inhibit growth and not cause death.
Dr. Jedd Wolchock, M. D., realized the cancer found in canines was essentially the same as the cancer found in humans. So, he began extending research of a new cancer therapy (the xenogeneir plasmid DNA vaccination) from mice to dogs. The mice trials had gone well, but he needed more data using animals with a longer life and in situations where tumors occurred spontaneously. Dr. Wolchock teamed up with veterinarian, Dr. Philip Bergman. Within three months, the two doctors had nine dogs (all household pets) registered for a study. All had cancer and the owners were anxious to try the new treatment. The survival rates were so promising that soon dog owners from around the globe were flying into New York for treatment. Over 350 dogs have now undergone this new therapy with booming success. Continuing work is currently being done to create a similar vaccine for humans.
Another cancer study using canines began this year. The Canine Health Project, initiated by Dr. Michael Guy, consists of three thousand golden retrievers from all over the United States. Each will be followed for the rest of its life providing a plethora of data: diets, household cleaners, secondhand smoke, proximity to power lines, and other environmental factors. Cancer rates will be monitored and compared to the data looking for commonalities to shed light on this deadly disease.
Because a laboratory setting is not used; no question of ethics can be raised. These creatures are living out their lives with their human families, running, sleeping, and playing catch. The only novelty is researchers are keeping a keen eye on them. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll find a cure for one of the most feared diseases by studying the dog we call friend.