To the uninformed visitor, it does indeed look more like a plush private healthcare facility for wealthy, or at least well-insured, humans. At reception, the only giveaway — in the temporary absence of any pets — is a polite, but one imagines, vitally important notice: “To ensure the safety of all patients, we would ask our clients to keep cats in their baskets and dogs on leads at all times.”
This is plainly not an argument likely to be settled any time soon. Suffice it to say you will not find anyone here, staff or owner, who does not believe absolutely, like Niessen, that if an operation like the one now being performed on Harry can win the patient even a year or two of real quality of life, it is worth the ￡3,000-odd (US$4,794) it will end up costing his owners’ insurance company (some bills can be nearly twice as high).
However, there is another good reason for doing this particular operation.
“What’s fascinating is that this disease is quite rare in humans, but quite prevalent in cats,” Niessen says. “And we still don’t know what causes these tumors. Are there genetic factors? So these tumor cells will be cultured and researchers will try to find out what’s gone wrong with the gland. This operation could change the way we deal with this disease in people.”
The concept of “one medicine” or “one health” — the idea that human and veterinary medicine are not divided, but can and should complement each other — is not new. Such giants of the profession as Rudolf Virchow, known as the father of modern pathology, and Sir William Osler, a founding professor at Johns Hopkins Hospital and considered the inventor of modern medical teaching, both preached it, eloquently, in the 19th century.
However, although a number of diseases are shared by humans and animals, the concept has only lately begun to gain traction, spurred in particular by the similarities discovered recently between the gene profiles of humans and many animals. 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.
Niessen believes the communities can learn from each other.
“Around 80 percent of diabetic cats have Type 2 diabetes — the condition that’s costing the UK health service ￡1 million an hour,” he says. “There are similarities between inflammatory bowel diseases in dogs and Crohn’s disease, and between Cushing’s disease and hyperthyroidism in cats. Cancers: lymphoma, leukemia. I could name you 100 diseases humans and animals share, and the list would not be complete.”
Human medicine puts “a lot of money and effort into trying to replicate these diseases, in mice for example,” Niessen says. “That can certainly help, but at best they’re basically models — not the naturally occurring disease. And yet in cats and dogs, we have those very diseases, occurring naturally.”