USDA defends research that killed cats

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
This photo of a cat taken inside a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Beltsville, Maryland, was obtained by the White Coat Waste Project through a records request.

Washington — Research experiments at a Maryland lab helped improve public health, but resulted in killing 221 cats during the last five years at annual project cost of $624,000, federal officials say. 

The project has used and euthanized an average of "a few dozen cats a year over the life of this project" and has cost $22.5 million since the project began 36 years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's in-house scientific research agency. 

The Agricultural Research Service defends its kitten experiments in a recent letter to U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, who raised concerns this month about the project with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. 

The ARS says its "life-saving" research is important to both human health and food safety, credited with helping to cut the prevalence of the common parasite that causes the disease toxoplasmosis by as much as 50 percent in the United States and Europe. 

Toxoplasmosis may pose a risk of serious health problems to people with weakened immune systems or women who are pregnant.

The agency also says the project, which has been renewed through 2021, makes efforts to minimize the number of cats used and shares its data with a global network of scientists to reduce the need to duplicate its animal-based experiments.

"ARS researchers are pursuing methods to safeguard the water, meats and produce that this parasite contaminates, and are advancing progress towards a lifesaving vaccine," ARS Administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young wrote to Bishop.

Bishop has said the decades-old “project uses kittens as test tubes," questioning why the ARS destroys the animals after two weeks — given that the kittens are treatable — rather than put them up for adoption. 

He cited records describing how kittens bred at the government lab in Beltsville, Maryland, are fed parasite-infected raw meat for two to three weeks to collect parasites from their feces, then euthanized and discarded by incineration.

He introduced a bill with Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-California, to amend the Animal Welfare Act to prohibit the Agriculture Department's breeding, use and disposal of cats in "painful or stressful" testing procedures. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, is a co-sponsor. 

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee last week approved an agriculture spending bill with language expressing concern about the "painful" cat experiments, directing the Agriculture Department to consult experts about the feasibility of alternatives to the use of cats in public health research and develop a program to adopt out cats no longer needed for testing. 

In its letter, ARS told Bishop that it has concluded that adoption of the animals "still presents a public health risk that is too high for us to consider rehoming of ARS' research cat population at this time." 

"We acknowledge there are treatments available for cats that develop clinical signs of toxoplasmosis, and that most cats will develop immunity and stop shedding oocysts following infection," Jacobs-Young wrote. 

"However, studies have shown that these measures will not prevent otherwise healthy cats from becoming re-infected and possibly resume shedding later in life," highlighting a study that appeared in the journal Nature in 1976.  

Jacobs-Young said, by year's end, her agency will hear from an external panel of scientific and veterinary experts to assess "alternatives to euthanasia." 

"We continue to actively search for and are open to opportunities that may permit placement of cats in the future, if safety considerations are met," she wrote. 

ARS will continue to "actively explore" alternatives to cat testing, but that "passage through a cat host is the only known method for production of oocysts that are urgently needed in the search for a stable, efficacious vaccine to prevent infections in humans and animals," she added.

The agency could not provide mortality figures for cats beyond the prior five years, saying it must retrieve hard-copy records to gather data on the number of animals used in the research. 

Veterinarian groups say most cats with toxoplasmosis can recover with treatment — usually a course of antibiotics.

The Cornell Feline Health Center says people are more likely to become infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii by eating raw meat or unwashed fruits and vegetables, rather than from cat feces.

ARS says its research into the parasite led to warnings placed on packages of cat litter advising pregnant women to avoid changing litter boxes and to change litter daily.