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With the Canary Database, animals become sentinels for environmental hazards

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2005 - Autumn


Before the effects of mercury poisoning showed up in the children of Minamata, Japan, in the 1950s, cats were getting sick with a neurological ailment dubbed “dancing cat disease.” In Africa, human outbreaks of the lethal Ebola virus follow the dying off of animals including apes and deer. And epidemiologists are keeping a watchful eye on avian flu, which has jumped from chickens to humans in Asia and Europe.

Since 2002 an interdisciplinary group of researchers at Yale has been creating a database that makes the connections between diseases in animals and diseases in humans. With funding from the National Library of Medicine, the Canary Database hopes to harness this information so that animals can serve as sentinels of impending human disease.

“If you have an animal that is sick from an environmental hazard, should human health professionals be concerned?” asked Peter M. Rabinowitz, M.D., M.P.H. ’95, fw ’98, associate professor of medicine and principal investigator of the database. The question is not hypothetical. It was a veterinarian at the Bronx Zoo who in 1999 reported the occurrence of dead crows to public health authorities, who did not initially recognize that the birds were signaling the emergence of West Nile virus in this hemisphere. “That is a good example,” Rabinowitz said, “of the communication barrier and world-view barrier we are trying to bridge.”

In order to overcome gaps between experts in animal health and those in human health, the Canary Database makes animal sentinel studies from a variety of biomedical databases easily accessible. Researchers can search the database for a wide variety of environmental hazards, both toxic and infectious; learn how these hazards have been studied in animal populations; and discover whether there is evidence linking the animal disease event to human health risk.

The database takes its name from the proverbial canary used by coal miners to warn of the presence of carbon monoxide. A collaboration of the Yale Occupational and Environmental Medicine program, the Yale Center for Medical Informatics and the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, the database culls from veterinary literature papers on animal disease that might have relevance to humans. Five curators, including veterinarians and physicians around the country, review and curate the papers, adding information about epidemiological methods and linkages to human health outcomes.

The information they collect could be used to help public health practitioners detect impending disease outbreaks or terror attacks involving chemical or biological weapons. “We want to be a continuing resource,” Rabinowitz said.