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The Maltese Canary: Recognizing Parallels Between Human and Animal Medicine

Sarah Blau, a member of the Class of 2017 at NC State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, is sharing some of what she learns and experiences as a second-year veterinary student with readers of the CVM News Central Blog. Watch for these postings on a monthly basis.

Jackson receiving his allergy drops.
Jackson receiving his allergy drops.


 Last September I received allergy testing results for my new dog, Jackson. He had been so itchy, he was slowly scratching all the fur off his chest and face. It turns out the poor guy is allergic to everything from dust mites to ragweed to pollen of all sorts. Ironically, the results of my own allergy test from two years ago look remarkably similar to Jackson’s. Every other week I drive to my allergist for a series of allergy injections that help to keep my symptoms at bay. Now, every day I give Jackson allergy drops under his tongue to help him in the same manner my allergy shots help me.


Is it a coincidence that the prevalence of serious allergy problems in both humans and dogs has been steadily increasing over the last decade? Perhaps something in our environment or in the way we live contributes to this allergy epidemic and carries over to our pets. I have learned there are countless parallels between human and companion animal medicine.


Today’s dogs and cats frequently suffer from ailments common to humans such as obesity, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, irritable bowel disease, and cancer among many others. Cancer is an especially prominent disease in both the human and canine worlds. One in three humans will die of cancer, and the same statistic is true for our pet dogs. Our pets may suffer from many of the same cancers we hear about in humans, such as breast cancer, malignant melanoma, or lymphoma. It is not surprising, then, that advances in human cancer treatment have paved the way for cancer treatments for our pets and vice versa.


I wonder if the reason we see so many similar diseases between our pets and ourselves is because we so closely share the same living environment. Pets breathe the same air and live in the same surroundings as their owners and have done so for hundreds of years. If dogs—for example—share our environment and our diseases, could they also hold the key to treating or preventing these diseases? Like canaries in a coal mine, warning miners of the danger of noxious gasses, perhaps our pets could act as sentinels of our health risks.


For example, a professor told us a story about a young couple who owned a beloved Maltese dog. They took that little dog everywhere with them. After a time, the couple became pregnant and moved into a larger house in an older neighborhood. Shortly after the move, the Maltese became really sick and was brought to the emergency clinic. Bloodwork and other diagnostics, along with the dog’s history, led veterinarians to believe the Maltese was suffering from lead poisoning, likely from eating flaking paint chips from the walls of the old home. With treatment, the Maltese recovered and the owners were forever grateful, not just that their little dog was well, but that the pet pointed out a big danger to their unborn child. They were able to take precautions to ensure that the new baby would not experience the same lead poisoning as their Maltese.


This story of the Maltese canary, as I like to think of it, exemplifies a relatively new perspective on veterinary and human medicine: that knowledge of veterinary medicine could enlighten aspects of human medicine. I discussed this concept in a blog last year.


The parallels between animal and human medicine are too similar to overlook. I have seen enough evidence in the past year and a half of veterinary school to know that the two medical fields are intricately intertwined. They are, in fact, One Medicine.


If you are interested in learning more about the overlap between veterinary and human medicine, check out this recent TED talk titled “What Veterinarians Know That doctors Don’t” by Dr. Barabara Natterson-Horowitz, a UCLA cardiologist and a leading proponent of the One Medicine/One Health movement.