Senate bill seeks to end kitten deaths for animal testing in the US

The bipartisan bill calls for the Department of Agriculture to consider adoption over euthanasia

Sarah Harvard
New York
Thursday 20 December 2018 21:46
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Senate bill seeks to end kitten deaths for animal testing

Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon has introduced a bipartisan bill to put a halt to Department of Agriculture (USDA) killing the kittens it uses for animal testing.

The USDA breeds about to 100 kittens a year to use for research into toxoplasmosis, a food borne parasitic illness that can prove to be serious for unborn children or people with weak immune systems.

Cat faeces contain the toxoplasma parasites, and are the only animals to do so.

In toxoplasmosis research, the USDA feed the kittens with meet infected with the parasite, harvests the eggs from the parasite and use it for other experiments, and then kill the kittens, Mr Merkley said.

The Kittens in Traumatic Testing Ends Now Act of 2018, or the KITTEN Act, prohibits this process completely.

A spokesman for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, the department that runs the testing, told CNN in May that using felines is “essential” for research aimed at fighting the widespread parasite, and it “”makes every effort to minimise the number of cats used,” calling the 100 figure a “serious over-estimation.”

The department also said the cats are not put up for adoption since it believes there could be potential risk to the families that take the pets in.

“Our goal is to reduce the spread of toxoplasmosis,” the USDA said in May. “Adopting laboratory cats could, unfortunately, undermine that goal, potentially causing severe infections, especially with unborn children or those with immunodeficiencies.”

Mr Merkley said veterinarians he spoke to disagree.

The Oregon Democrat said vets told him the kittens, whom are often killed before they even reach three-months-old, could be medically treated for the parasite and recover to be “very healthy.”

“There’s absolutely little cost and no reason not to treat them and adopt them out to American families,” Mr Merkley added.

The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) seems to agree with the opinions of Mr Merkley and other veterinarians, and said cats infected with toxoplasma can only spread it in their faces for a “few weeks following infection with the parasite”.

In May, Gudrun Ravetz, the senior vice-president of the British Veterinary Association, said the risk of humans contracting the parasite is low.

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“While humans can pick up Toxoplasma gondii through contact with faeces from infected cats, research indicates that the risk is low. Pregnant women, young children and people with a weak immune system can be at greater risk and should follow NHS advice on precautionary measures,” Mr Ravetz said.

The veterinarian specialist said cat owners can easily minimise the risk further by maintaining good hygiene.

“Cat owners can minimise risk of infection by following good hygiene practices when handling the cat’s litter tray, emptying soiled litter trays often during a day, and washing their hands thoroughly after handling food, especially meat,” he added. “We’d also advise owners against feeding their pet a raw-meat based diet as it could increase its risk of infection.”

The legislation was first introduced in the House of Representatives by Republican Rep. Mike Bishop of Michigan. Mr Bishop lost his re-election big in November. When Mr Bishop first heard of the testing, he penned a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue condemning the kitten testing.

“It appears that this project uses kittens as test tubes,” the Michigan Republican wrote. “As you can imagine, I was shocked to hear that the USDA, the very organisation set out to enforce animal welfare laws and regulations, was treating the life of animals with such contempt.

“Put simply, it creates life to destroy life. While I support the objective of making food safer and protecting people and animals from infectious diseases, we must ensure taxpayer dollars are used effectively, efficiently, and humanely,” he added.

The bill now has 61 Republican and Democrat co-sponsors.

Mr Merkley said he aims to make the bill a bipartisan effort once the new Congress resumes in January, and is looking to discuss kitten testing with Mr Perdue.

The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service department spokesman told CNN that it does not take positions on legislation, and that it uses “the strictest adherence to ethical standards and rigorous implementation of best management practices.”

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