By Mary Daily
Published Jul 1, 2012 8:00 AM
Cardiologist Barbara Natterson Horowitz’s aha moment came when she realized a chimp’s heart was just like her own.
Barbara Natterson-Horowitz has always had an interest in nature and wildlife. On her way to becoming a cardiologist, she studied evolutionary biology but never dreamed it would become such a big part of her work.
It was when Natterson-Horowitz, director of imaging for the UCLA Cardiac Arrythmia Center, took her kids to the Los Angeles Zoo for a sleepover that she happened to talk with zoo staff about the illnesses they see in their animals and right away, she saw striking similarities in those maladies and the ones that afflict humans. For example, she says, Dobermans experience obsessive-compulsive disorder; ponies get diabetes; Siamese cats get congestive heart failure and killer whales contract Hodgkin's lymphoma.
A few months later, zoo veterinarians asked her to do an echocardiogram on a chimp who had possibly suffered a stroke. "I was completely captivated and amazed," says the UCLA physician, who now serves on the zoo's medical advisory board. Over the past six years, she has examined ailing gorillas, lions, South American tamarins, gibbons, orangutans and chimpanzees.
Similarity between human and veterinary medicine makes sense, she says. "We know now through the genomic revolution how incredibly connected we are with animals—primates, mammals, even insects—but the M.D. world is only beginning to understand how that applies to disease."
She's hoping to help change that with a book she has coauthored titled Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing. The book includes interviews with more than a dozen UCLA faculty members.
Helping sick animals has been "thrilling, one of the greatest experiences" of her life, Natterson-Horowitz says. But she's equally enthusiastic about what animal medicine can teach those who treat humans.
Doctoring animals has "changed how I view every human patient," she says. "You have to think about who you're spending time with" in a way that's also extremely beneficial when treating human beings. For example, she says, vets know how to "calm and quiet" the animals they treat—a skill that can make all the difference for human patients.
"So much of the knowledge that veterinarians and wildlife specialists have is applicable on the human side, but there are few bridges between the two," she says. "This is a call to action for us as humans to stop assuming we're unique and reach across the species divide."