Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a UCLA cardiology professor, had her ah-ha moment while doing an echocardiogram on an Emperor tamarin monkey at the Los Angeles Zoo. Trying to calm the monkey by making eye contact with him as she was used to doing with her pediatric patients, the veterinarian standing next to her warned her not to: “You’ll give her capture myopathy.”
Despite having practiced medicine for nearly 20 years, this was the first time she’d ever heard of “capture myopathy.’’ Intrigued, she did some research and discovered that it was a syndrome that had been documented by veterinarians for decades. Capture — and other causes of extreme stress in animals — can cause a massive outpouring of adrenalin that overwhelms the heart and leads to death in many cases. Yet only in the 1990s did researchers recognize that the same phenomenon can occur in humans, presenting as a heart attack after extreme emotional distress, but without evidence of blocked coronary arteries. Realizing there was likely to be much more in common between animals and humans than just heart disease, she began to explore other disease processes and how they presented across species.
The result is this book. The authors define its title, “Zoobiquity,’’ as “a connecting species-spanning approach to the diagnostic challenges and therapeutic puzzles of clinical medicine.” It shares much with the One Health movement, which grew out of meetings between the heads of the American Medical Association and the American Veterinary Association in 2007. And when you consider how much humans and animals have in common (nearly 99 percent of human DNA is similar to that of the chimp), the only real surprise is that it’s taken so long for the physician community to embrace this notion.
In a dozen chapters with titles like “Roar-Gasm’’ and “Fat Planet,’’ Natterson-Horowitz and co-author Kathryn Bowers, a science journalist, examine the physiological similarities between humans and animals — as well as some illuminating differences.
Take cancer, for instance. It affects multiple species in many different forms. Jaguars, for example, have a high incidence of breast cancer (and also of the BRCA1 genetic mutation that renders many Ashkenazi Jewish women susceptible to the disease). So do English springer spaniels. Yet the dairy cows and goats whose milk we consume have a very low rate of breast cancer. This recalls the finding in humans that some women who breast feed have lower rates of breast cancer as well. Perhaps, the authors suggest, breast cancer prevention could include inducing lactation in women, even those who were not interested in nursing. “You might not wrinkle your nose at the idea of scheduling a preventative, induced lactation if you knew that your risk of breast cancer might plummet to the level of professional animal lactators.”
Another topic is fertility. A bird known as the houbara bustard had been hunted almost to the point of extinction in North Africa. Breeders working to restore its population found that female bustards who watched a male perform a premating ritual prior to insemination produced more viable eggs. These were more likely to hatch and contain stronger chicks than the eggs of females who had not seen the mating dance. It turns out that watching the male bustard strutting about caused the females to produce higher levels of testosterone, which then had a beneficial effect on their eggs. How could this possibly be relevant to women struggling to get pregnant? “Maybe surfing YouTube for clips of drenched and brooding Colin Firth . . . would have an enhancing effect on egg recruitment and growth, whether a woman is going through in vitro fertilization (IVF) or trying naturally for conception,” the authors write cheekily.
This very engaging book is difficult to put down. It provides lots of information in an easy-to-understand manner that doesn’t feel overwhelming, perhaps because of the liberal use of humor throughout. Reading “Zoobiquity’’ gave this reader a totally new perspective on his furred and feathered neighbors.
Dennis Rosen, a pediatric lung and sleep specialist who practices in Boston, can be reached at dennis.rosen@childrens