Beyond the fur, feathers and skin

Beyond the fur, feathers and skin

70-percent of all infectious diseases originate in animals. Changes in the environment and global travel contribute to their spread.

We are all connected.

by Linda Weiford, WSU News

Gretchen Kaufman
WSU Veterinary scientist Gretchen Kaufman:
 Animal health and public health are increasingly
intertwined, she says.

Washington State University veterinary scientist Gretchen Kaufman sometimes makes house calls 7,000 miles away to patients living in the shadows of Mt. Everest. She works to prevent—and even contain—disease outbreaks among wildlife that include elephants, rhinos and tigers.

Meanwhile, at the University of California-Los Angeles Medical Center, cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz diagnoses and treats heart ailments in humans.  She is also trained as a psychiatrist.

Though the two women work for different universities, in different professions and sometimes at opposite ends of the globe, they share this strong belief:  the fate of the planet's health doesn't solely depend on how we humans fare; animals are a crucial part of the equation as well.

Natterson-Horowitz, the physician, is so passionate about this species-spanning or "zoobiquitous" approach to medicine that she wrote the best-selling book "Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us about Health and the Science of Healing," coauthored by science writer Kathryn Bowers.

"There's this attitude, mostly among physicians, that humans have their own set of health problems and animals have theirs," said Natterson-Horowitz, "even though there's a vast biological overlap."

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz lioness
Physician Barbara Natterson-Horowitz examines
the heart of an anesthetized lioness at the
Los Angeles Zoo.

While serving as a medical consultant to the Los Angeles Zoo, she discovered that beyond the fur, feathers and skin, humans and animals share a lot in common. Animals, like humans, get cancer, diabetes, heart disease and arthritis. They also give diseases to each other. People can spread tuberculosis to elephants and salmonella to pets. Conversely, infectious pathogens can originate in animals and spill over into human populations, including influenza, Lyme disease, Ebola, AIDS and Nipah virus.

"As we've recently seen with Ebola, diseases can travel as fast and far as a jet will fly," Natterson-Horowitz said.

Each year, she brings veterinary and human medicine experts together to learn from each other at Zoobiquity conferences. The next one is scheduled for Nov. 1 in Seattle. Kaufman, the veterinarian, will be there.

Kaufman read Natterson-Horowitz's book two years ago and now keeps it on a shelf in her office at the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health. Not only will she be a presenter at the Seattle conference but she also serves on its organizing committee alongside Natterson-Horowitz and other veterinary and human health experts.

"To advance the idea that human, animal and ecological health are all connected and need to be addressed more holistically—in this day and age, that's vitally important," said Kaufman. "Zoonotic diseases aren't emerging from animals in isolation. The more our population grows, the more we're altering their habitats, expanding food production and transporting people and animals globally—including the pathogens they may be carrying."

The melding of disciplines in Seattle will mark the fourth Zoobiquity conference. The gathering is being put on collaboratively by WSU's Allen School and College of Veterinary Medicine, the University of Washington's School of Medicine and its School of Public Health, Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo and the Zoobiquity Research Initiative, based at UCLA.