[Q:] What do you call a veterinarian that can only take care of one species?

[A:] A physician.


UCLA cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz says people doctors can learn a lot from other, often furry, animals. She’s written a bookZoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health, and given an excellent TEDTalk about it, telling NPR:

“This comparative way of thinking is something that veterinarians learn from their first week of veterinary school,” she tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “When they learn about the heart, they learn about a four-chambered heart in a mammal and a three-chambered heart in a reptile and a two-chambered heart in a fish. … Physicians, we don’t learn that way. We don’t think that way.”

The realization that a comparative approach, she says, could advance our knowledge of human medicine was something of a revelation. “It’s been exciting for me,” she says. ” … On rounds with students, when we’re talking about … breast cancer — to point out that breast cancer has been seen in mammals from kangaroos and camels to whales, and that there is an increased rate of breast cancer and ovarian cancer in some Venezuelan jaguars.”


Dr. Natterson-Horowitz tells TEDMED of some interesting continuing medical education (CME) possibilities for physicians, psychologists, dentists, nurses, and other providers of human health care:

Zoobiquity Conferences have now been held across the US and internationally. At these events human health practitioners including physicians, nurses, dentists, psychologists and others come together with animal health practitioners including veterinarians, behaviorists, nutritionists and others to discuss the shared diseases of their different species. I’ve heard some veterinarians joke, “real doctors take care of many species.” Bringing the comparative approach to the human medical community has the power to transform how physicians, nurses, psychotherapists and others understand disease, their patients and the environmental and evolutionary factors that link us all together. I hope Zoobiquity is successful in bridging the worlds of animal and human health, ecology and evolutionary biology.


Like observing a canary in a coal mine, studying animals can give physicians great insight into what’s going on epidemiologically within our own communities. Dr. Natterson-Horowitz gives two examples of how such a zoobiquitous approach to medicine might work:

Breast cancer: When beluga whales began dying of breast and colon cancer in the St. Lawrence estuary, a parallel epidemic of breast cancers in women was discovered in the same region. This species-spanning breast cancer outbreak was ultimately linked to toxins from local aluminum smelting plants.

Obesity: Medical insights into obesity — which challenges physicians and veterinarians alike as animal and human patients are becoming more fat — are generated by a zoobiquitous approach. Awareness of worsening obesity in domestic and wild animal populations challenges us to consider environmental factors including endocrine disrupting chemicals, antibiotics, and even climate change as contributors to the “plurality of obesity epidemics.”