Animals Deal with Sickness better than Humans do (Part One)

Vernon Coleman and Donna Antoinette Coleman

Animals Deal with Sickness better than Humans do (Part One)

Note: The following essay is taken from The Wisdom of Animals’ by Vernon Coleman and Donna Antoinette Coleman

How Animals Treat Themselves

An animal's body, like a human body, can protect, defend and repair itself when under threat. In-built mechanisms enable an animal to exist under quite extraordinarily extreme external conditions. The body's internal mechanisms (some of which are mechanical but most of which are physiological) work readily, speedily and automatically to protect the body from external threats.

Animals recognise the power of what we call ‘bodypower’. They know that sometimes not taking medicine is the best way to get well. They understand that fasting, resting, staying warm, allowing vomiting and diarrhoea to do their work, may be the best way. If, however, these systems do not or cannot function, or do not succeed in dealing with the problem, then the animal's instincts and behavioural habits will take over. So, to give a simple example, if the weather is too hot for the internal temperature control mechanisms to defend an animal's integrity, and protect it from damage, then the animal will find some shade or will swim in a pool.

However, if physiological mechanisms and instincts all fail, and the animal falls ill, then the creature will treat itself, using medicaments taken from its surroundings.

Animals don't usually rely on outside doctors, they self-medicate. They use their experience to avoid illness and protect themselves from illness but if they fall ill they treat themselves. Animals may learn from one another – and, if an animal needs help, another will often provide it - but there are no specialist animals working as doctors.

The aim of self-medication is, of course, to re-establish a feeling of well-being. To do that the patient (whether human or animal) needs to have an understanding of his or her own body. He or she needs to know his or her strengths and weaknesses; he or she needs to know what is normal and what is not. And he or she will probably need to change his or her behavioural patterns – often in a quite dramatic way. So, for example, animals will often seek out and consume something they don't normally eat and which has no nutritional benefit.

Naturally, in order to do this, animals need to know where to find the medicaments they may need. And this is where animals excel. Indeed, animals are so good at finding and using natural remedies that many of man's most effective medicinal solutions were identified by observing animals.

In modern orthodox medicine, doctors tend to treat disease by attacking the pathogen alleged to be responsible. Modern, western medicine turns the patient into a battlefield - with the result that in many instances the treatment does more harm than good. The modern doctor tends to ignore the fact that, for example, infections often take hold during stressful conditions and to forget (if they ever knew) that strengthening the human organism is invariably just as important as attacking the disorder. Attacking only the infection or disability means treating only the symptoms rather than the cause.

In contrast, practitioners of traditional Oriental medicine take a more holistic approach, assuming that the pathogen is not the direct cause of the disease, but merely a symptom of an imbalance, a disruption of physiological or psychological homeostasis. Animals favour this philosophy.

The animal approach is a holistic one; treating the whole organism - and attacking any infection - in whatever ways will best produce a positive outcome. Animals understand that when a disease strikes it is often because their organism has in some way been weakened (by, for example, drought, famine or overcrowding) and that if they are to get wholly well again they must tackle internal, as well as external, causes of disease.

It is, of course, only animals living in the wild who are able to treat themselves. Animals on farms, although far more likely to fall ill than animals in the wild, are denied the opportunity to treat themselves by their circumstances. Despite the fact that there is a considerable amount of evidence showing that animals such as cows and sheep are quite capable of diagnosing and treating themselves, farm animals have very limited access to the varieties of natural plants available in the wild.

Farm animals are more likely to fall ill than animals in the wild for several reasons. First, stocking densities tend to be so high that parasites, for example, spread easily and quickly and become endemic.

Second, animals kept on farms are unlikely to have proper opportunities to exercise. Many, who live indoors, are even denied the health giving properties of sunshine and fresh air. Farm animals may be exempt from the worst excesses of drought and starvation but their lifestyle is far from healthy. Inevitably, the circumstances in which animals are kept mean that psychological problems abound too.

Third, animals are unlikely to be able to enjoy the sort of range of foodstuffs that would be available to them in the wild. The diet farmers give to captive animals bears no relationship to the diet they normally live on. So for example, farmers often give animal waste to vegetarian animals. In the USA, chicken excrement is fed directly to cattle (`to give them protein') and the French Government has admitted illegally feeding human sewage to French cattle. For years, farmers in Britain routinely fed their cattle the ground up brains and spinal cords of other cattle. (It was this that caused the disastrous outbreak of mad cow disease). Farmers ignored the fact that herbivorous ruminants don't eat meat and never engage in cannibalism.

In wild, or semi-wild, conditions chickens live in forests in small groups; they scratch around on the forest floor eating worms, insects and pieces of fresh plant. They use the dust and the sun to keep their feathers bright and they bathe when it rains. At night they roost in trees (their claws are adapted for hanging onto branches even while asleep) so that they are safe from predators.

This is a healthy lifestyle for a chicken.

However, this isn't how chickens are kept on most modern farms. Chicken farmers have selectively bred chickens to grow faster and faster. They have doubled the speed at which a chicken matures. Muscle is created before the bird's heart and circulation can cope, and the result is that the birds are constantly ill. Their bones aren't capable of supporting their excess weight and so they get broken bones. They die of thirst and starvation because they cannot reach the automated food and water delivery systems which supply their cages. Eighty per cent of broiler chickens suffer broken bones and 17,000 birds die every day in the United Kingdom because of heart failure. Farmers regard these deaths as an acceptable cost of doing business. The food the chickens are fed is selected according to the cheapest possible formulation and contains just the basic ingredients. (One popular ingredient is ground up dead chicken. They have to do something with all those dead birds.) The chickens are routinely given antibiotics to try to keep them healthy (despite the fact that farmers know that this habit is a major cause of the development of antibiotic-resistant organisms) and they are kept in semi-darkness so that they stay quiet. They suffer from exceptionally high temperatures (especially when the weather is warm), they stand in their own excrement (which is acidic and blisters their feet) and the air they breathe in is full of fumes, bacteria and dust. It is hardly surprising that half of the broiler flocks in the United Kingdom are colonised with bacteria which can cause neurological problems, arthritis, headaches, backache, fever, nausea and diarrhoea in the people who eat them.

Farm chickens, like other farm animals, are given no freedom and no chance at all to self-medicate.

There is also evidence that animals kept in zoos are more likely to fall ill than animals living in the wild. (When animals are born in zoos the keepers usually offer this evidence that the animals must be happy. Would zookeepers also claim that the fact that babies were born in concentration camps was evidence that concentration camp inmates were happy?) Animals in captivity invariably die far younger than they would die if they were allowed to roam free. (At one oceanarium a famous pilot whale was actually thirteen different pilot whales.) Gorillas in captivity are more likely to die of heart disease than gorillas in the wild. Captive elephants and giraffes both develop arthritis and foot problems (disorders which are far less likely to be seen among animals in the wild). Three quarters of the black rhinoceroses in captivity are killed by haemolytic anaemia that doesn't affect black rhinoceroses.

Captive animals show stereotypical movements such as pacing, rocking or weaving. They develop all sorts of unusual habits: rubbing themselves against the bars of their cages or walking backwards and forwards in unsuccessful attempts to soothe their frustrations. Sometimes, captive animals will become angry. For example, elephants are normally the most peaceful of vegetarians but in zoos they occasionally become homicidal.

Stress is a major factor in the development of disease among animals and there is clear evidence that animals in any sort of captivity suffer a great deal of stress. Animals which normally live in the wild do not adapt well when kept in captivity. Their immune systems collapse when they are separated from their families and friends and shut up in cages. Even if wild animals are caught when still young they will often die within weeks or months if they are locked in a cage. Creatures as varied as gorillas and white sharks all tend to fall ill and die if locked up. An animal's immune system is inextricably linked to its surroundings and to its exposure to stress.

There are, of course, other explanations for the poor health animals suffer in captivity. Animals in captivity simply don't have access to the normal variety of foods they might find in the wild (some of which they would undoubtedly use as medicaments). They don't have the same natural grooming opportunities, the same opportunity for exercise, the same variety of companions and the same soils. Because they are in cages or restricted areas they are unable to move away from pathogen hot spots and they may also be unable to develop proper social relationships with other animals of the same species.

Tomorrow, we will list examples of some of the ways that animals treat themselves when they are ill.

We can learn a great deal by watching how animals deal with disease - particularly infectious disease. Humans have already learned a great deal about medicine and health care by observing animals but we could learn much more.

The above essay is taken from the book `The Wisdom of Animals’ by Donna Antoinette Coleman and Vernon Coleman. `The Wisdom of Animals’ is available from the bookshop on

Copyright Donna Antoinette Coleman and Vernon Coleman 2012 and 2024