The US government has been accused of killing thousands of healthy kittens as part of secretive decades-long experiments.
Documents provided by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) showed that scientists from a research laboratory in Maryland have been breeding them killing up to 100 kittens a year. The figures were obtained by animal rights watchdog White Coat Waste Project (WCWP), who filed a freedom of information request.
The two-month-old kittens are fed raw meat infected with Toxoplasma – a parasite that causes the disease toxoplasmosis – for two to three weeks. Their faeces is then collected to harvest the parasite for use in other experiments designed to combat food-borne illnesses.
The cats are then killed and incinerated, it is alleged.
Justin Goodman, vice president of public policy for WCWP, said: "I think most tax payers would be alarmed and disgusted to learn that for decades they have essentially been funding a USDA kitten slaughter house here in Beltsville right outside the Beltway."
According to WCWP, documents showed nearly all the infected kittens were healthy.
In a letter to USDA head Sonny Perdue, congressman Mike Bishop condemned the alleged kitten tests.
“It appears that this project uses kittens as test tubes,” he 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.”
Is a statement, the USDA defended its research, saying the parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, was one of the most widespread in the world.
“The parasite is spread by cats that prey on infected birds, mice and other animals,” it said. “Cats excrete a form of the parasite in their faeces and contact with infected cat faeces is how most people in the US come in contact with Toxoplasma gondii.
It said the laboratory made “every effort to minimise the number of cats used” in the research, and that the allegation of 100 kittens a year was a “serious overestimation”.
But the documents, which were subsequently seen by The Independent, state "most cats" were euthanised weeks after they were first fed the infected meat. It also estimated 300 kittens would be used to incubate the parasite over the next three years.
The USDA statement continued: “USDA does not seek adoptions of these cats because of the risk the cats could pose to their adoptive families.
“Our goal is to reduce the spread of toxoplasmosis. Adopting these cats could, unfortunately, undermine that goal, potentially causing severe infections, especially with unborn children or those with immunodeficiencies.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says cats infected with Toxoplasma can only spread it in their faeces for a "few weeks following infection with the parasite".
But a USDA spokesperson said the science on the topic "continues to evolve" and that recent research has raised questions about the issue.
"Such research indicates T. gondii can still be present in a cat’s body much later than previously thought, and can become active again," she said.
Gudrun Ravetz, senior vice-president at the British Veterinary Association, said: “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.
“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. We’d also advise owners against feeding their pet a raw-meat based diet as it could increase its risk of infection.”
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