That Bird Just Saved My Life: What Animals Can Teach Doctors

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An Egyptian Vulture flies on Socotra island March 27, 2008. Thousands of bird species around the world, including the Egyptian Vulture, are affected by heart disease, and few physicians know that birds and people share risk factors for developing it. Despite the overlaps, most physicians will go their entire careers never collaborating with a veterinarian, the authors write. Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

Flying at an altitude of 6,000 feet above the Himalayas, she suddenly senses something is wrong. Weakness, difficulty breathing. The major artery feeding blood to her heart is blocked—from years of untreated high cholesterol and atherosclerosis. Suddenly, she plummets. But this cardiac patient can’t call 911. The pilot won’t make an emergency landing.

That’s because this patient flying at altitude is—literally—flying at altitude.

She’s a bird—an Egyptian vulture—who, like many avian species from bald eagles to owls, flamingos to penguins, develop cholesterol-rich plaques in their hearts. Just as in human beings, these plaques can lead to strokes, aneurysms and sudden cardiac death.

Related: Why Elephants Don't Get Cancer—and What That Means for Humans 

Thousands of bird species around the world are affected by this form of heart disease. But although atherosclerosis is the leading killer of men and women in the United States, very few physicians, even cardiologists, are aware of the connecting cardiac condition in birds. Fewer still may know that birds and people share risk factors for developing atherosclerosis: inactivity, stress, diets heavy in meat, and—in the case of birds—being female. This last risk is especially notable as the medical profession is learning more about the special heart dangers associated with being a woman.

Cardiologists are not alone in their ignorance of animal health and disease. Most human oncologists are unaware of the incidence of breast cancer in captive lions, tigers and jaguars. Or of Hodgkin lymphoma in an orca or leukemia in a juvenile white rhino. Pediatricians certainly know that a deadly form of bone cancer called osteosarcoma is seen more often in teenagers who are especially tall. But they may not know that very tall dogs like Saint Bernards and Great Danes are also at particular risk of developing this very same kind of cancer.

From diabetes and brain tumors to arthritis and allergies, animals get essentially the same diseases as we humans do. But despite the overlaps, most physicians will go their entire careers never collaborating with a veterinarian, attending a vet conference or reading animal medical journals.

The two fields do come into contact when infectious diseases crossing from animals to humans (called zoonoses) threaten to cause pandemics. Recent global outbreaks of Ebola, West Nile, avian flu and SARS have jolted physicians into briefly paying attention to their veterinary colleagues.

But beyond zoonoses, many physicians have poor awareness of, and even disregard for, “animal doctors” and their knowledge. The disconnect starts with education. While vet students learn about diabetes, leukemia and brain tumors in mammals, birds, reptiles and fish, med students learn about diseases in only one kind of patient: homo sapiens. Veterinarians sometimes poke fun at human medicine’s narrow view, joking, “What do you call a vet who can only take care of a single species?” The answer: “A physician.”

But physician ignorance is no laughing matter. Because learning how and why animals get sick—or stay healthy—could lead physicians to better understand, treat, and even prevent life-threatening diseases in their patients.

Kidney doctors for example, should ask how come a hibernating bear doesn’t build up toxins in its blood, despite not urinating or defecating for months. A human who did that would require hemodialysis or else die from blood poisoning.

Geriatricians studying osteoporosis could also find inspiration in hibernation, when a bear’s bone density remains remarkably preserved despite prolonged inactivity. Elderly human patients who are inactive following hip fractures see rapid bone loss.

And OB-GYNs could compare the remarkably low rates of breast cancer in dairy cows, goats, and sheep—what veterinarians call “professional lactators”—and women who breast-feed.

The field of psychiatry could particularly benefit from veterinary knowledge. Over 25 percent of American adults report mental illness every year, yet significant numbers of these individuals will not seek out or receive care. The barrier? Stigma. Misguided theories about the causes of mental illness—weak character, “evil nature”—contribute to the shame this medical condition can carry.

Yet most of the mental illnesses that affect humans also occur in animals. From eating disorders to self-harm to anxiety, a wide spectrum of animal species exhibit symptoms. Notably, they respond to therapy. For some human patients, the simple knowledge that they share their addictions, eating issues, or compulsions with animal patients can offer some relief.

Recognizing that mental illness occurs in nature allows a patient to see the absurdity in “blaming” the patient (human or nonhuman). After all, feather-plucking parrots, anorexic sows, and compulsive Dobermans aren’t weak or evil creatures to be shamed and shunned. They are suffering and in need of compassion and care. Veterinarians’ effective treatments emphasize strong social support, improved environmental conditions, and increased activity as ways of helping animals improve their behavioral and mental well-being.

Some of the best and most humanistic medicine is being practiced by doctors whose patients aren’t human. A powerful but overlooked way for physicians to improve the health of their human patients is to pay close attention to how all the other patients on planet Earth—soaring over the Himalayas, scrambling up savannah hilltops or snoozing at your feet—get sick and get better.

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, MD is a professor of Cardiology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA. Kathryn Bowers was a New America Fellow in 2012-15 and teaches writing at UCLA. They are the co-authors of the international and New York Times best-selling book, Zoobiquity; The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health and co-founders of the Zoobiquity Conferences.