The Blog

Animal Welfare Supports Public Health: New Book Lays Out the Science

Dr. Aysha Akhtar looks at the interlocking animal and human health issues involved in domestic violence, animal-fighting, animal attacks, the wildlife trade, factory farming, climate change, and drug development.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

I've often said that by showing kindness to animals and eating fewer (or better yet, none) of them, we see personal health benefits -- a reduction in heart disease, stroke, cancers, diabetes and obesity. What's good for animals is good for us!

Now there's an intriguing new book that extends my thesis of holistic well-being beyond food and into a variety of other areas of human interaction with animals.

In Animals and Public Health: Why Treating Animals Better is Critical to Human Welfare, Dr. Aysha Akhtar, a public health specialist, neurologist from the FDA's Office of Counterterrorism and Emerging Threats, and HuffPost blogger, looks at the interlocking animal and human health issues involved in domestic violence, animal fighting, animal attacks, the wildlife trade, factory farming, climate change, and drug development.

For example, the wildlife trade section discusses the acquisition process for exotic pets, furs, and animals used for petting farms, zoos, and circuses. Dr. Akhtar takes us through the lives of animals captured or bred for this trade and shows how the trade led to the emergence and spread of HIV, Ebola, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), monkeypox and other serious infectious diseases.

In perhaps the most immediately-harrowing section, the book explores how violence is related to animal abuse. The strongest connection between violence toward animals and people is in domestic violence, but there is also increasing evidence of a link between school bullying and animal abuse. Notorious killers Jeffrey Dahmer, "The Boston Strangler," Dennis Rader, Carroll Cole, "The Moors Murderers," and Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had allegedly all tortured and killed animals before turning on people.

In the section on animal experimentation, Dr. Akhtar makes a compelling case for focusing our scientific resources on human-based testing methods, because differences in the physiology between species leads to different results. The book also shows how the daily distress and anxiety that animals experience in laboratories can lead to radically-misleading results. For example, the book discusses cases where clinical trial participants were made seriously ill because of misleading results in animals and also how misleading results in animals may have caused pharmaceutical companies to abandon countless therapies that "may have worked spectacularly in humans."

The book also shows how bird flu is directly related to factory farming. By confining billions of animals on factory farms, Dr. Akhtar says, we are spurring the evolution of the influenza virus in ways that can lead to serious pandemics. In fact, she shows how factory farms are among the most important contributors to the emergence of infectious diseases. Although I found all of her science to be solid and convincing, I did pay even closer attention to this section, since Dr. Akhtar works as a scientist in the FDA's Office of Counterterrorism and Emerging Threats.

Dr. Akhtar concludes by arguing for a real shift in how we view our health and our relationship with animals. Rather than seeing our health in isolation, Dr. Akhtar suggests, we need to recognize how our health is affected by our interactions with animals. Otherwise, we will never successfully be able to tackle some of our most urgent health issues.

In other words, we need to treat animals better -- not just for their sake, but also for ours. It's all connected. (Isn't everything?)