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Congressman questions USDA killing kittens in experiments

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Has the USDA been killing hundreds of cats and kittens in the name of research? One U.S. Congressman seems to think so.

This week, Congressman Mike Bishop sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue expressing concerns and seeking more information about secretive and problematic experiments on cats and kittens being performed at a USDA laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland. Bishop says at the lab, where USDA testing has been receiving taxpayers’ dollars for nearly half-a-century, hundreds of kittens are bred, fed parasite-infected raw meat, and then killed, even though the USDA admits the kittens are healthy at the study’s completion.

“I’m shocked and disturbed that for decades the USDA—the very organization charged with enforcing animal welfare laws—has been unnecessarily killing hundreds of kittens in expensive and inefficient lab experiments. Any government research program like this one that’s been funded since the Nixon administration needs to be put under the microscope, especially when it involves using kittens as disposable test tubes in harmful tests that most taxpayers oppose,” said Rep. Bishop.

For more than a year, Rep. Bishop has been investigating and calling for reforms in the use of dogs and cats in government research labs. Most recently, he was part of a successful bipartisan effort that cut funding for painful and unproductive experiments on dogs at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Congressman Bishop’s work to end government waste and animal abuse in USDA’s deadly kitten lab exemplifies his outstanding advocacy for taxpayers and animals. An overwhelming majority of Americans want to cut government spending on wasteful and cruel dog and cat experiments, and Rep. Bishop is ensuring their voices are heard on Capitol Hill,” said Justin Goodman, vice president of advocacy and public policy at White Coat Waste Project, a nonpartisan taxpayer watchdog group that obtained many details of USDA’s kitten research through the Freedom of Information Act.

A spokesperson for the Agricultural Research Service told CNN the estimate of 100 cats used in USDA research was a “serious over estimation” and called cats “essential to the success of this critical research.”

The spokesperson went on to say the research was being done to prevent the spread of toxoplasmosis. The infection usually occurs by eating undercooked contaminated meat, exposure from infected cat feces, or mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy.

According to the USDA ARS, domestic cats are most likely the major source of contamination since oocyst formation is greatest in domestic cats.

Cats may excrete millions of oocysts after ingesting as few as 1 bradyzoite or 1 tissue cyst, and many tissue cysts may be present in one infected mouse. Generally, only about 1 percent of cats in a population are found to be shedding oocysts at any given time. Oocysts are shed for only a short period (1-2 weeks) in the life of the cat, however, the enormous numbers shed assure widespread contamination of the environment. 

Under experimental conditions, infected cats can shed oocysts after reinoculation with tissue cysts. It is not known whether repeated shedding of oocysts occurs in nature, but this would greatly facilitate oocyst spread. Sporulated oocysts survive for long periods under most ordinary environmental conditions. They can survive in moist soil, for example, for months and even years. Oocysts in soil do not always stay there, as invertebrates like flies, cockroaches, dung beetles, and earthworms can mechanically spread these oocysts and even carry them onto food.

Congenital infection can occur in cats, and congenitally infected kittens can excrete oocysts, providing another source of oocysts for contamination. Infection rates in cats reflect the rate of infection in local avian and rodent populations because cats are thought to become infected by eating these animals. The more oocysts there are in the environment, the more likely it is that prey animals will become infected, and this results in increased infection rates in cats.

Tags: USDA, Research News, Animal Health
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