Thinking with Non-human Animals in the Medical Humanities

In the first post of our Animals in Medicine series, Camille Bellet asks us to look beyond the human-centric instrumentalisation of animals in both health research and critical medical humanities scholarship.

Close up image of a black and white cow and human hand.
Cow, August 2021. C. Bellet.

Take a close look at this image: ‘Is this cow happy to see me or does she want something from me? Some food or a stroke?’ How do I know what she thinks and what she wants? Surely something is going on in her mind as she comes to me.

And why is the question always ‘Is she happy to see me or does she want something from me?’ Why so much egocentrism on our part? We, humans, always tend to relate things to ourselves. To understand processes through and, ultimately, for ourselves.

The integration of non-human animals into the medical humanities is no exception. The science of human health and well-being has long used non-human animals as objects of human comparison or emotional support (e.g. for mental health and family therapy) rather than as distinctive forms of living beings from which humans could learn new practices and knowledges. Human omnipresence and exceptionalism in knowledge production are, in my view, symptomatic of our general feeling of insecurity vis-à-vis our own (in)capacities and powers of knowing (in this case, knowing what it means to be well and healthy).

Comparing our brains to those of other non-human animals and classifying them by size in order to advocate for our human intelligence, for example, is archetypal. Humans, of course, always try to win the prize for brain size and complexity. Unfortunately for us, human brains are far from the biggest and most complex. And even if they were, brains do not explain everything, certainly not intelligence and living skills.

Haven’t we fought against the same brain size discrimination in our own species too? For generations, women have been said to have ‘brains too small to be able to study’ (Breen and Jordahl, 2022). Why do humans always compare themselves to others? And why do they not question the references they use in those comparisons (e.g., their anthropocentrism and the fact that the ‘human’ is most often a white Western male)? Comparisons do not allow us to reach sensations and consciousnesses of life. But individual experiences and individual histories do.

Rather than wondering if the cow in the image is happy to see me or wants something from me, why not ask her: ‘How are you?’ This may be a better question for medical humanities scholars when trying to bring non-human animals into their conversations concerning knowledge production. We, humans, have things going on in our bodies and our minds that we tend to assume are exclusive to humans. Depression, melancholy, dreams, bitterness, courage, enjoyment, optimism and perseverance, to name a few. But other non-human animal bodies and minds out there may experience them too.

Have we not, and do we not in some spaces, still mimic birds, insects, and mammals to develop remedies against our own physical and mental ailments? In ancient times, humans copied deer, goats and storks for the treatment and care of spider bites and wounds, by applying and ingesting the same medicinal plants used by these non-human animals (de La Bigne, 2023) – our human and non-human knowledges, practices, and experiences of health and well-being intersect.

Take a cow, a pig, or a chicken, for example. It turns out that you can give farmed animals ‘hypertension’ (i.e. high blood pressure) by inducing social stress (e.g. by separating or grouping them, being aggressive towards them or limiting their social interactions). The study of farmed animals’ stress has advanced our knowledge of human hypertension. Dogs with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) also respond to the same drugs as humans, over the same time course. And Fluoxetine, an anti-depressant sold under the brand name Prozac, is given to horses for the treatment of horse ‘anxiety’, aggression and compulsive behaviours, such as cribbing and wind-sucking.

What do these examples have to say about our joint experiences of health and well-being? Do we use, as we do for humans, cognitive therapy to manage the stress and OCD of cows, pigs, and chickens? To be frank, do we really consider cows, pigs and chickens as individual patients worthy of the name? Most of the time in treatment, farmers and vets ‘enrich’ the environment of farmed animals with music and an assortment of brushes and chew toys, without thinking about or wanting to understand their primary sources of anxiety.

A pig being suckled by piglets in a large metal contraption
Sow with her pigs, August 2021, C. Bellet

The argument that non-human animals would be unable to develop their own cultures and knowledges of health and well-being is false. But we, humans, have mostly alienated and prevented them from putting their knowledges into practice (e.g. by limiting their living space to our homes, laboratories or farms and by blocking their ability to do and express themselves in these spaces). In doing so, however, we have also prevented ourselves from rethinking spaces of cohabitation with non-human animals and from knowing other ways of living well with them in these spaces.

As American ecologist, Carl Safina, notes: one of the things that we don’t see in wildlife animals is depression or suicide. Those things do exist in many captive animals and they exist a lot in humans. For Safina, humans, like domestic animals, have domesticated themselves; and that domestication involves a lot of captivity. But how do we free captive non-human animals when we, humans, are captives too? Could empathy help us? Would it not require of us a certain humility and an acceptance of our own animality?

Brown and white cow giving birth
Cow giving birth, June 2023, C. Bellet.

Take the example of human and bovine birthing conditions in industrial Western Societies. Are not human healthcare systems and bovine healthcare systems similar in many ways? The commodification of the bodies of cows – their beauty, sexuality and productivity – lies at the heart of the bovine healthcare system. The commodification of the well-being and health of cows and women are similar in many ways, and numerous scholars have drawn parallels between the denial of the subjectivity of the female body under capitalist patriarchy and their instrumentalisation by technology (see, e.g., Adams, 1990 and Cudworth, 2008).

What could a comparative approach between women and cows bring to the medical humanities? Birthing on the farm is not ‘clinical’ in the way that Michel Foucault (1989) has used to describe the increasing regulation and control of women’s birthing. While there is no question that cow birthing perpetuates the business of industrial farming in Western societies (just as human birthing ensures an ample supply of workers and consumers to perpetuate a capitalist economy), the day-to-day reality of cow birthing is far less heavily regulated, monitored, and even watched than human birthing. Cows often give birth on their own, with little or no human intervention.

As philosopher, David Michael Levin (1988) argues, we should ‘release our vision from the grip of its fixations and obsessions: once we see that there have been other [non-human] ways, we can begin to look with eyes open to a new future… a new vision for our dark times’ (p. 104). We, humans, are responsible for our vision of health and well-being, and for our lack of it. Careful examination of the sensory representations (e.g. visual, auditory, olfactory, taste and tactile) by humans, of human and non-human animal health and well-being, can help us to reflect, discover and transform our deep-seated ideologies about the meanings and makings of these subjects. As with any change and critique, a new version of the medical humanities can be developed through other knowing practices, reoriented towards accountability, inclusivity and ethical care of non-human animals.

About the author:

Camille Bellet is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in Humanities and Social Science at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM) at the University of Manchester. She has a background in veterinary medicine and has an interest in interdisciplinary research on our relationships with cows, pigs, and chickens and how to account for non-human animals’ sensory experiences in knowledge production on health and well-being. Camille is the co-founder of the Non-human Animals in the Medical Humanities Network (NAMHN) and tweets @CSCBellet.


Adams, Carol J. (1990) The Sexual Politics of Meat. A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. New York/London: Bloomsbury.

Breen, Martha and Jenny Jordhal. (2022).  La Chute du Patriarcat. Histoire(s) du sexisme et des femmes qui ont résisté. Paris: Larousse.

Cudworth, Erika. (2008)  ‘‘Most farmers prefer Blondes’: The Dynamics of Anthroparchy in Animals Becoming Meat.’ Journal for Critical Animal Studies, vol. IV, no. 1, pp. 32-45.

De La Bigne, Yolaine. (2023) L’animal Médecin. Paris: Alisio.

Foucault, Michel. (1989) The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. New York/London: Routledge.

Levin, David M. (1988) The Opening of Vision. Nihilism and the postmodern situation. New York/London: Routledge.

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