Controversial Animal Testing Program Involving Kittens Ended by USDA

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Three cats the White Coat Waste Project believes were USDA breeder cats for the controversial program that euthanized thousands of kittens
Source: Hilary Hanson, “Investigation Reveals USDA Killing Kittens Used as Hosts in Parasite Research,” huffpost.com, May 9, 2018

On Apr. 2, 2019, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it would end an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) animal testing program using kittens. The program researched the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, which causes toxoplasmosis, an illness most often caused by eating undercooked meat contaminated with the parasite.

Justin Goodman, President of the White Coat Waste Project, the whistle-blowing organization on this issue, stated, “At eight weeks, [scientists] would feed them [the kittens] infected meat, harvest parasitic eggs from their feces to be used in other experiments, then kill them. Kittens become immune [to toxoplasmosis] after two weeks, and still the USDA was incinerating them.”

A USDA spokesperson, Kim Kaplan, stated that 239 cats were euthanized between 2013 and 2018. A White Coat Waste Project report estimated that more than 3,000 infected cats have been euthanized as part of the research project that received $22.5 million in funding since 1982. They also reported an additional 471 infected dogs from Colombia, Brazil, and Vietnam, and 124 infected cats from China and Ethiopia were euthanized and then fed to the kittens in order to infect them with the Toxoplasma parasite. That the kittens were being fed meat from diseased cats and dogs led to the charge of “kitten cannibalism” against the USDA.

The USDA has not infected any kittens since Sep. 2018, and the remaining 28 uninfected cats and kittens will be up for adoption to USDA employees. The USDA also stated that cats will no longer be used in any ARS research.

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who introduced the Kittens in Traumatic Testing Ends Now Act of 2018 (KITTEN Act) to prevent the USDA from using kittens in testing, stated, “The USDA made the right decision today, and I applaud them for their willingness to change course. It’s a good day for our four-legged friends across America.”

The USDA noted, “ARS is a world leader in research on the Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) parasite, which causes toxoplasmosis, a disease considered to be a leading cause of death from foodborne illness in the United States, especially for individuals with weak immune systems such as children and HIV patients. The agency’s research in this area has borne undeniable results – including helping to cut the prevalence of T. gondii by as much as 50 percent in the United States.”

Jim Keen, DVM, PhD, Associate Professor of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Nebraska and co-author of the White Coat Waste Project report, called into question the importance of the USDA study, stating, “there is essentially no difference between toxoplasmosis prevention recommendations on the current USDA website and those published half-a-century ago.” According to the CDC, over 40 million Americans carry the Toxoplasma parasite, though very few show any symptoms because the infected person’s immune system prevents illness.

Discussion Questions
1. Should animal testing be used for human disease prevention? Why or why not?

2. Do animals make good test subjects for studies on human diseases? Why or why not?

3. Should animal testing be allowed for other purposes, such as cosmetic testing? Which purposes? Why or why not?

Sources:

Jeanna Bryner, “USDA Fed Cats and Dogs to Kittens, Alarming Watchdog Report Claims,” livescience.com, Mar. 19, 2019

CDC, “Parasites – Toxoplasmosis (Toxoplasma Infection),” cdc.gov, Aug. 29, 2018

Jeff Daniels, “USDA Ends Practice of Deadly Experiments on Kittens,” cnbc.com, Apr. 2, 2019

Jamie Ducharme, “The USDA Forced Kittens to Become Cannibals for Research, Watchdog Report Says,” time.com, Apr. 2, 2019

Hilary Hanson, “Investigation Reveals USDA Killing Kittens Used as Hosts in Parasite Research,” huffpost.com, May 9, 2018

Jim Keen and White Coat Waste Project, “USDA Kitten Cannibalism: Cat and Dog Meat Markets Abroad. Taypayer-Funded Animal Testing at Home.,” blog.whitecoatwaste.org, Mar. 2019

Vanessa Romo, “USDA Terminates Deadly Cat Experiments, Plans to Adopt out Remaining Animals,” npr.org, Apr. 2, 2019

USDA, “ARS Announces Toxoplasmosis Research Review, Discontinues Research with Cats,” usda.gov, Apr. 2, 2019