Should Humans and Animals Share Hospital Emergency Rooms?

Just how close is the link between human and animal health?

The silver lining of pet surgery? Advances in your own health. (Photo: Sean Yong/Reuters)

There’s a state-of-the art hospital in Britain running 365 days a year, around the clock, with a highly trained staff of 200, cutting-edge operating facilities, the most modern ECG, CT, and MRI equipment, radiation therapy, a hydrotherapy tank, blood donor program, and services in anesthesia, cardiology, oncology, opthalmology, and other medical branches.

But you can’t admit yourself there as a patient. Not because you’re not from Britain. Not because health insurance won’t cover it. Not because the spacious consulting rooms look so plush that the hospital seems like an unaffordable plastic surgeon’s office in Beverly Hills. 

No, it’s because you’re not a pet cat or dog. 

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The Royal Veterinary College’s Queen Mother Hospital for Animals may seem ready to treat any person that walks through its doors, but at reception, a sign reads: "To ensure the safety of all patients, we would ask our clients to keep cats in their baskets and dogs on leashes at all times."

Fortunately, the animals being treated at QMHA are actually informing scientists about human diseases. 

Harry, a 12-year-old Maine coon cat has acromegaly, which may be a rare human disease, but the QMHA veterinarians who operated on him believe that the tumor cells they cultured will allow researchers to discover what causes the overproduction of growth hormones in humans. 

Although Harry is old and this operation may have been too risky, he survived; but when his owners committed to the operation, they were willing to potentially sacrifice his life for the sake of science.

"This operation could change the way we deal with this disease in people," said QMHA lecturer Stijn Niessen. This “one health” practice is not new. Both "father of modern pathology," Rudolf Virchow, and founding professor of Johns Hopkins hospital, Sir William Osler, have preached the concept since the early 19th century. However, only recently have animal and human health professionals started to recognize that when they collaborate and communicate, the healthcare of humans and animals only benefits. 

According to The Guardian, "in 2007, the American Veterinary Medicine Association launched a drive ‘to unite human and veterinary medicine to improve animal and public health’, while in Britain the Wellcome Trust is now funding five years of research at Imperial College into the historical convergences between human and animal medicine.” 

In 2010, Cedars-Sinai’s Dr. Adam Mamelak taught Los Angeles veterinarians a procedure used to remove tumors in human pituitary glands; in exchange, he received dogs’ tissue samples that would help researchers develop a drug that could treat Cushing’s disease in both humans and animals. 

Humans and animals share more than 100 diseases, including: STDs, addictions, eating disorders, diabetes, bowel diseases like Crohn’s, and several cancers, including lymphoma and leukemia. 

In short: The modern medical advances to come with this “one health” approach could be astronomical. 

For example, the effort to try to replicate human diseases in mice in order to find cures for them is now over. According to University of Newcastle’s Professor James Shaw, regenerative medicine in pets like dogs and cats has great promise, but rodents are too “young, and good at repairing themselves.” He continues that this one health approach is not "a cheap and cheerful way of doing animal testing. You're talking about real utility and benefit to an animal with a relatively short life who is unwell. Just like a human. The benefits to these animals will be there, clinically."

The QMHA may seem too cutting-edge to be an animal hospital, but it may just be the way of the future.

"At this point a 'multi-species' waiting room seems unlikely," wrote Dr. Kathryn Natterson and Barbara Bowers, in an email to TakePart. They are the co-authors of Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing. "We envision the bringing together of veterinarians and physicians to be more about starting conversations and expanding the perspectives of doctors taking care of the same diseases in different species. Both fields have much to offer the other in terms of approach, practice and even investigation. And practitioners are not the only beneficiaries of this species-spanning approach; patients gain too as they understand that their issues from cancer, to heart disease, to addiction to sexual dysfunction are not uniquely human."

Would you ever want to be admitted into a multi-species hospital? Tell us in the COMMENTS.

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