Animals Are A Huge Threat To Our Health And Happiness. Here's How.

If you've ever felt uncomfortable about how we love some animals and allow others to suffer horribly, you'll want to hear this doctor's perspective. She sees powerful connections between our own health and that of ALL the animals around us — not just our pets.

At 2:00, she lays out our central dilemma with animals. And starting at 4:00, she shows why harming animals is harming ourselves. Hang on till 11:33, cuz she's got good news.

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Aysha Akhtar: When you walk in your front door at the end of the day, who do you greet first? Well, here are my choices. These are my two boys. This is my husband, Patrick, and this is my cat, Silas. Now, I'm happy to see both of my boys. They're both cute. But come on, look at that ridiculously adorable face. Who do you think I'm going to greet first? And unlike my husband, Silas can do no wrong. Well, fortunately, my husband understands. And it turns out, most of us understand. According to a survey, among those of us with dogs and cats, which is most of us, 78% greet our companion animals before we greet our significant other. Of course, there's more to this story. Our dogs and cats are usually the first to come rushing to welcome us home. They're excited to see us and we're excited to see them.

Petting a happy animal just seems to make our worries go away. When your dog is playing with you with a big sloppy grin on his cat or your cat is purring underneath your hand, can't you just feel your blood pressure dropping? Well, my cat Silas doesn't know it, but he holds a clue to something even larger, a clue that can actually help us solve many of the biggest health threats we face today. The clue is something we all intuitively know whenever we greet our animals. Somehow though, the clue is so obvious we don't see it in front of us. And instead, we approach our relationships to animals with blinders on us. We're given this false choice that we can neither protect humans from harm or animals.

In other words, it's us or the animals. And because of this false dilemma, our relationship with animals is confused, isn't it? Well, we love our dogs and cats but eat pigs and chickens. We'd buy our dogs and cats toys, but those toys in our coats and our shoes are made from furs and skins from foxes and cows. We do everything we can to medically treat our dogs and cats when they're sick but we ignore the dogs and cats who are purposely made sick in experiments. Now I know we've all read of the incredible people like the ice breakers who rescued the whales trapped in the Arctic and the amazing firefighters who rescued a deer who had fallen through frozen ponds.

Now, what amazing people we are. We can show such incredible humanity towards animals, and yet, and yet more animals suffer today than ever before in human history. And this is because now, most animal abuse is hidden from our view. This is because often, animal abuse is routine practice by industry and it's actually paid for by our own tax dollars. And this is because, let's be honest, it's downright depressing to think about how animals are treated, right? We also have our own concerns that just seem so overwhelming. Besides the daily worries of life, we're worried that our children may inherit a poison planet. We're worried that our parents may languish paralyzed from a stroke for which there is no cure. We're worried about our own health and our struggles to lose weight. And doctors like me are worried about new viruses and epidemics.

But what if I told that all these worries are connected with how we treat animals? You see, the clue that's waiting for us is this. It's not us or them. It's us and them. When we help animals, we help ourselves. And when we hurt animals, we hurt ourselves too. Every day, hundreds of animals are experimented on in windowless basement laboratories. But the evidence shows that these experiments are outdated and they actually prevent us from fighting the cures we so desperately seek. Every week, thousands of animals are ripped from their habitat and shipped around the globe to be used as exotic pets, for meat, and for circuses. But we know that this trade in animals is the reason why we have monkey pox, Ebola, and SARS. Every year, billions of animals are slaughtered for our consumption. But we discovered that the animal industry contributes more to greenhouse gases than all the world's trains, planes, and automobiles combined.

Every human life is now impacted by the way we treat animals. And nowhere is this more apparent than in our eating habits. Now I know, we don't like to think about this but most of us in this room are going to die from a chronic disease. Heart disease, stroke, and cancers make up the far majority of deaths worldwide. Entire families are dying from these diseases. And we're not dying because we inherited our mother's DNA. No, we're dying because we inherited our mother's cookbook. Except now, we eat more animals than our parents ever did. Each American will eat about 15,000 animals in his or her lifetime. Now that's a massive, massive industry. The days of family farms are now long gone. And in their place, we have factory farms.

Pigs, chickens, and turkeys now live here. If you were to spend two hours inside one of these farms, your lungs and eyes would burn from the scent of urine. That's two hours. Just imagine for a moment what it must be like for the animals who have to live their entire lives here. And by causing animals to suffer, we cause ourselves to suffer. Our high consumption of animal products made cheap by modern industry is killing us. We're dying from chronic diseases at younger and younger ages than our parents ever did. Now, one in three of us between the ages of 40 and 60 have heart disease and many of us aren't even aware of it. Animal products are the main source of saturated fats and the only source of cholesterol in our foods. A Harvard study projects that by 2050, almost half of Americans will be obese. Not overweight, obese.

Of course, animal products aren't the only the cause for these chronic illnesses, but they're certainly one of the main causes. Now this is such a waste. We know how to prevent these illnesses. If we save animals, we save ourselves. After chronic diseases, infectious diseases are most likely to kill us. When you eat meat, eggs, and dairy, you're eating something that's teeming with bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella. Recent studies have found harmful bacteria in two-thirds of beef and pork and in 97% of the chicken found in our grocery stores. Now, you know, all the care you take in buying and preparing your food, well, your food was contaminated long before you brought it home. The factory farms are filthy places. Because the animals are so miserable and so stressed, their immune systems are down and that makes factory farms perfect breeding grounds for infectious diseases.

In the U.S., we slaughter one million animals an hour, an hour. Do you honestly think that an overworked, understaffed Department of Agriculture, quickly glancing at the carcasses as they whiz by on the slaughter line, is going to protect you? This year, one in six of us will get a food-borne illness. Now we could largely prevent this if we consider the lives of animals. If we save animals, we save ourselves. If though, we continue to ignore the plight of animals, we could have an even bigger problem on our hands. Our greatest danger may not be E. coli and Salmonella, but new viruses that cause pandemics. The worst pandemic in history occurred just as World War I was winding down.

The 1918 influenza virus killed more people in 25 weeks than AIDS has killed in 25 years. For good reason, public health experts call it the mother of all pandemics. Now the virus was able to take hold and spread quickly among the soldiers who were stressed and crowded in the muddy trenches. Like factory farms, the trench just became breeding grounds for new deadly viruses. And actually, influenza virus had remained quite stable for about 100 years. But over the past few decades, it's been rapidly mutating yet again. Why? Because of factory farms. We've all read and heard about all the new swine and bird flu viruses that keep popping up. Well, you may not be aware, but we've been incredibly lucky so far. If you were to catch one of the more common bird flu viruses, you would have only a 50% chance of surviving.

That is a deadly, deadly virus. Fortunately, bird flu is not very contagious. Swine flu, on the other hand, is contagious but it has not been very deadly so far. Because of the crowded conditions in a factory farm, a bird or swine flu can spread from animal to animal like wildfire. Like the trenches, factory farms are breeding grounds and incubators for the virus. Except now, instead of having sick soldiers by the thousands unable to escape the virus, we have sick animals by the billions. See, animals, these poor animals on these farms are like night clubs for viruses. In these animals, different viruses can get together, exchange greetings, and swap genetic material. And each time a virus passes into another animal, it can mutate into an even deadlier form.

Despite how deadly it was, the mortality rate of the 1918 influenza virus was still less than 5%. Now what do you think is going to happen when a bird flu that kills 50% of people combines with the swine flu that spreads fast? Because of factory farms, it is just a matter of time before a new virus emerges that has a right combination to be both deadly and contagious. And this time, we're going to find ourselves face to face with the mother-in-law of all pandemics. OK, I told you the bad news. By ignoring the suffering of animals, we create conditions that cause our own suffering. And rather than protecting us, our tax dollars are paying for the very industries that are killing us. Doesn't that make you mad? But there is good news. We don't have to wait for our government to do things right.

You each have the power and the control in your own hand to do the right thing and it's easy. Are you ready for the answer? OK, go out and eat. Go out and eat. Something we all do anyway. But, you know there's going to be a but, we can't avoid them. They are right behind us everywhere we go. Just make this one change. At your next meal, as you make a pledge right now to the people around you, just make this one change. Instead of piling your plate full of bacteria-ridden eggs, meat, and dairy, pile it full of delicious, healthy vegetarian food. By simply choosing one plate of food, you will single-handedly help prevent a pandemic and you'll protect the environment and you'll protect yourself from a stroke and you will lose weight and you will save thousands of animals from a lifetime of misery in a horrendous step.

And how often in life are you given the opportunity to make such a tremendous impact with so little effort? We have some significant threats before us. Our planet is perishing, our bodies are breaking, and pathogens are proliferating. But the solution to this threat isn't really a mystery. Solutions have been in there in front of us every time we greet our animals. And the solution is simply this. What's good for animals is good for us. When we save animals, we save ourselves too. Now imagine if we took off our blinders, imagine all that we could accomplish if we saw the destinies of humans and animals and share it. Imagine how wondrous and bright our future could be if we change our relationship with all animals from this to this. Thank you.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

This TEDx Foggy Bottom presentation is by Aysha Akhtar, who you can find on Facebook and Twitter. Thumbnail image via Thinkstock.

Jul 14, 2014

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