What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing

Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing

“Obesity is a disease of the environment.” — Richard Jackson

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiologist at the University of California Los Angeles, believes that her fellow human physicians have much to learn from their veterinary counterparts. These are not separate fields, she argues in her book, coauthored with science writer Kathryn Bowers, Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing.

Did you know that animals get cancer? heart disease? They also faint. Even diseases we think of as uniquely human, like depression, sexual performance, and addiction are found in the animal world. A lot of animals even self-injure when faced with stress or boredom.

When asked, “why should doctors listen to veterinarians,” in a recent interview she responded:

I can speak from my own personal experience. I had spent almost a couple decades being a human doctor, a cardiologist, and I had very little awareness about veterinary medicine. I, like most physicians, only interacted with veterinarians when my own animals got sick….I had this wonderful opportunity to help out at the Los Angeles Zoo, and through that experience I began seeing, both through the patients I was helping with and listening to the veterinarians on their rounds, that they were dealing with heart failure, and cancer, and behavioral disturbances, and infectious diseases, and really essentially the same diseases that I was taking care of in human patients.

Some excerpts from Zoobiquity

Only a century or two ago, many humans and animals were treated by the same practitioner.

However, animal and human medicine began a decisive split around the turn of the twentieth century. Increasing urbanization meant fewer people relied on animals to make a living. Motorized vehicles began pushing work animals out of our daily life. With them went a primary revenue stream for many veterinarians. And in the United States, federal legislation called the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of the late 1800s relegated veterinary schools to rural communities while academic medical centers rapidly rose to prominence in wealthier cities.

Most physicians would never dream of consulting a veterinarian about human diseases.

Most physicians see animals and their illnesses as somehow “different.” We humans have our diseases. Animals have theirs.


Well that and the undeniable, and unspoken, medical establishments bias against veterinary medicine. Like all humans, doctors can be snobs. The unwritten hierarchy is based on a combination of factors but it’s pretty safe to bet that a veterinarian is below general practitioner.

“We do not like to consider [animals] our equals,” Charles Darwin once remarked. And yet we are animals. In fact, we share most of our genetic makeup with other creatures. Of course, we do learn from animals. Mice are commonly used to better understand human conditions.

Zoobiquity isn’t about animal testing. It’s about the fact that “animals in jungles, oceans, forests, and our homes sometimes get sick—just as we do. Veterinarians see and treat these illnesses among a wide variety of species. And yet physicians largely ignore this. That’s a major blind spot, because we could improve the health of all species by learning how animals live, die, get sick, and heal in their animal settings.”

One example of where we can learn from is why animals get fat and how they get thin.

Fattening in the animal world has enormous potential lessons for humans—including dieters looking to shed a few pounds and doctors grappling with obesity, one of the most serious and devastating health challenges of our time.

Millions cope with this life-threatening epidemic. Millions of domestic animals that is. These pets are “fatter than ever before, and steadily gaining more weight.” While hard to determine, studies put the number of overweight and obese dogs and cats somewhere between 25 and 40 percent. In case you’re wondering, that’s still, at least for now, well below the proportion of U.S. human adults who are now either overweight or obese, which is closer to 70 percent.

What sets domestic animals apart from their wild cousins? We feed them.

They are mostly or completely dependent on humans for every meal, and we regulate both the quality and the quantity of everything that passes their lips and beaks. Consequently, we can’t really blame them for their weight problems. … And so we’re left with one conclusion: we, the species that both manipulates food to make it more unhealthful and has the intelligence to understand that we shouldn’t eat so much of it, are to blame. We’re responsible not only for our own expanding waistlines but for those of our animal charges as well.

It’s easy and pleasing to assume that animals in their native environments effortlessly stay lean and healthy. That’s not the case.

Abundance plus access—the twin downfalls of many a human dieter—can challenge wild animals, too.

Although we may think of food in the wild as hard to come by, at certain times of the year and under certain conditions, the supply may be unlimited.

So wild animals get fat the same way we humans do: access to abundant food.

Of course, animals also fatten normally—and healthily—in response to seasonal and life cycles. But what’s key is that an animal’s weight can fluctuate depending on the landscape around it.

Learning from animals, call it the zoobiquitous approach, we learn that “weight is not just a static number on a chart. Rather, it’s a dynamic, ever-changing reaction to a huge variety of external and internal processes ranging from the cosmic to the microscopic.”

Richard Jackson says “Obesity is a disease of the environment.” In 2010 he explained what he meant:

One of the problems with the obesity epidemic is we too often blame the victim. And yes, every one of us ought to have more self-control and ought to exert more willpower. But when everyone begins to develop the same set of symptoms, it’s not something in their mind, it’s something in our environment that is changing our health. And what’s changing in our environment is that we have made dangerous food, sugar-laden food, high-fat food, high-salt food … and we’ve made it absolutely the easiest thing to buy, the cheapest thing to buy, and yes, it tastes good, but it’s not what we should be eating.

In a 2009 book, The End of Overeating, David Kessler made a similar point: excess sugar, fat, and salt “hijack our brains and bodies and drive cycles of appetite and desire that make it nearly impossible to resist certain fattening foods.” In a new book I’ve just started reading, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss makes the same point. (In case you’re wondering, the calories in calories out argument is bunk.)

One of the lessons we can take away

If you want to lose weight the wild animal way, decrease the abundance of food around yourself and interrupt your access to it. And expend lots of energy in the daily hunt for food. In other words: change your environment.

Nassim Taleb makes a similar point in his book Anti-Fragile:

Perhaps what we mostly need to remove is a few meals at random, or at least avoid steadiness in food consumption. The error of missing nonlinearities is found in two places, in the mixture and the frequency of food intake.

The problem with the mixture is as follows. We humans are said to be omnivorous, compared to more specialized mammals, such as cows and elephants and lions. But such ability to be omnivorous had to come in response to more variegated environments with unplanned, haphazard, and, what is key, serial availability of sources—specialization is the response to a very stable habitat free of abrupt changes, redundancy of pathways the response to a more variegated one. Diversification of function had to come in response to variety. And a variety of certain structure.

Note a subtly in the way we are built: the cow and the other herbivores are subjected to much less randomness than the lion in their food intake; they eat steadily but need to work extremely hard in order to metabolize all these nutrients, spending several hours a day just eating. … The lion, on the other hand, needs to rely on more luck; it succeeds in a small percentage of the kills, less than 20 percent, but when it eats, it gets in a quick and easy way all these nutrients produced thanks to very hard and boring work by the prey. So take the following principles derived from the random structure of the environment: when we are herbivores, we eat steadily; but when we are predators we eat more randomly. Hence our proteins need to be consumed randomly for statistical reasons.

So if you agree that we need “balanced” nutrition of a certain combination, it is wrong to immediately assume that we need such balance at every meal rather than serially so. … There is a big difference between getting them together at every meal … or having them separately, serially.

Why? Because deprivation is a stressor—and we know what stressors do when allowed adequate recovery. Convexity effects at work here again: getting three times the daily dose of protein in one day and nothing the next two is certainly not biologically equivalent to “steady” moderate consumption if our metabolic reactions are nonlinear.

… I am convinced that we are antifragile to randomness in food delivery and composition—at least over a certain range or number of days.

We’ve all known that antibiotics are used to stop the spread of certain diseases. But, Zoobiquity, offers another explanation:

Antibiotics don’t kill just the bugs that make animals sick. They also decimate beneficial gut flora. And these drugs are routinely administrated even when infection is not a concern. The reason may surprise you. Simply by giving antibiotics, farmers can fatten their animals using less feed. The scientific jury is still out on exactly why these antibiotics promote fattening, but a plausible hypothesis is that by changing the animals’ gut microflora, antibiotics create an intestine dominated by colonies of microbes that are calorie-extraction experts. This may be why antibiotics act to fatten not just cattle, with their multistomached digestive systems, but also pigs and chicken, whose GI tracts are more similar to ours.

This is really a key point: antibiotic use can change the weight of farm animals. It’s possible that something similar occurs in other animals—namely, us. Anything that alters gut flora, including but not limited to antibiotics, has implications not only for body weight but for other elements of our metabolism, such as glucose intolerance, insulin resistance and abnormal cholesterol.

The diet and exercise dogma:

Even without an assist from 32-ounce sodas, the yellow-bellied marmots in the Rockies, blue whales off the coast of California and country rats in Maryland have gotten steadily chubbier in recent years. The explanation might lie in the disruption of circadian rhythms. Of the global dynamics controlling our biological clocks — including temperature, eating, sleeping and even socializing — no “zeitgeber” is more influential than light.

The cycle

Modern, affluent humans have created a continuous eating cycle, a kind of “uniseason.” … Sugar is abundant, whether in our processed foods or in beautiful whole fruits that have had their inconvenient seeds bread out of them and that “unzip” from easy-to-peel skins and pop open into ready to eat segments. Protein and fat are everywhere available—in eternal harvest the prey never grows up and learns to run away or fight us off. Our food is stripped of microbes, and we remove more while scrubbing off dirt and pesticides. Because we control it, the temperature is always a perfect 74 degrees. Because we’re in charge, we can safely dine at tables aglow in light long after the sun goes down. All year round, our days are lovely and long; our nights are short.

As animals, we find this single season an extremely comfortable place to be. But unless we want to remain in a state of continual fattening, with accompanying metabolic diseases, we will have to pry ourselves out of this delicious ease.

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