Animal testing is sad but necessary. But what might shock you as a cat owner is that cats have historically been used for lab research, too. Are they still used in scientific experiments today, or is it against the law?
Are cats used in animal testing? They are, although only rarely compared to mice and rats. Mice and rats account for around 97% of animals used in testing, but cats are occasionally used because they’re biologically similar to people. They have the same internal organs, and the same reactions to common illnesses and health conditions. While animal testing can be cruel, it is also necessary for almost all scientific research. Cats in biomedical research are used to develop cures, understand health conditions, and improve the lives of both cats and people.
The guide below takes a balanced look at animal research—both arguments in favor and against. It starts by looking at whether, how and why cats are used in research, before taking on the question of whether it’s ethically right to do so.
Are Cats Used for Research in Labs?
Cat animal testing has been ongoing for more than a century. Cats were initially chosen because they are mammals, but also because they have been readily available to research labs anywhere in the world. That isn’t the case for lab mice, which are a very specific strain of mice, while the cats used in labs are like any other cat.
What Animals Are Used in Animal Testing?
Despite there being less testing for things like cosmetics, animals are still very widely used in biomedical research. This is research that doesn’t focus on products, but on understanding and curing health conditions.
The majority of animals used in this kind of testing are rats and mice. A small proportion of cats, dogs, monkeys and apes are used in research too, but ethical concerns have made their use rarer and rarer.
Are Housecats Used in Research Labs?
The answer to this question depends on what you take ‘housecat’ to mean.
The cats that are used in research labs are the same cats as you might keep at home. They’re the same breeds, with the same temperaments, needs and instincts. If you placed one side by side with somebody’s housecat, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart (providing they were the same breed, of course). So in that sense, yes, housecats are used in laboratory research.
In another sense, though, they aren’t the same cats. Most cats used in research studies have been bred by breeders that only supply research labs. That hasn’t always been the case, as the cats and dogs used in early scientific experiments were strays that were caught in the street. Even today, some scientists support the use of ‘random-sourced’ cats and dogs for their experiments. They state that “while most of these animals are specifically bred for research, some non-purpose bred or “random source” dogs and cats are also needed because they exhibit traits that are difficult to replicate in purpose-bred animals.”
However, it must be emphasized that these cats aren’t really any different to our cats. Just because they’re bred specifically for the purpose of research, that doesn’t mean that it’s any more right (or wrong) that they’re used in that way. The arguments for whether doing so is right or wrong should stand separate to that fact.
How Are Cats Used in Research Laboratories?
Cats are used alongside other animals to study the effects of health conditions. These conditions can be illnesses that the cat is made to catch, or they could be progressive health conditions like tumors. This research is then used to create new treatments for these conditions. The scientists may want to find a better way to treat CKD or obesity, for example. Or, the research goal could simply be to learn more about a certain health issue, what causes it, and what effects it has on a cat’s body.
There are a few different ways that research can be conducted. One is to examine the cat’s behavior in certain circumstances. Another is to measure its weight and fitness. Surgery may also be performed, either to attempt to correct a health issue, or observe the way in which a health issue has affected the cat.
What Is Vivisection?
The use of cats and dogs in laboratories has always been controversial. But in no context is it as controversial as that of vivisection.
Vivisection is surgery performed on a living animal for the purposes of research. This is a particular point of contention among animal welfare campaigners, who see it is cruel and unnecessary.
Vivisection has a fascinating history, despite its inherent ethical difficulties. It was first performed regularly by researchers in the 19th century, when biology and medicine were undergoing scientific revolutions. To understand more about the mammalian body and how to heal it, scientists regularly performed vivisection on stray animals like cats as a free and easy way to perform science. Remember, there was no such thing as delicate open-heart surgery back then—think more hacksaws…!
Even back then, though, vivisection was seen as cruel. As per Wikipedia:
One polarizing figure in the anti-vivisection movement was François Magendie. Magendie was a physiologist at the Académie Royale de Médecine in France, established in the first half of the 19th century. Magendie made several groundbreaking medical discoveries, but was far more aggressive than some of his other contemporaries with his use of animal experimentation. For example, the discovery of the different functionalities of dorsal and ventral spinal nerve roots was achieved by both Magendie, as well as a Scottish anatomist named Charles Bell. Bell used an unconscious rabbit because of “the protracted cruelty of the dissection”, which caused him to miss that the dorsal roots were also responsible for sensory information. Magendie, on the other hand, used conscious, six-week-old puppies for his own experiments. While Magendie’s approach was more of an infringement on what we would today call animal rights, both Bell and Magendie used the same justification for vivisection: the cost of animal lives and experimentation was well worth it for the benefit of humanity.
In 1876, the Cruelty to Animals Act was passed in the U.K., but other countries like France, Germany and the U.S. allowed it to continue. This was the first law anywhere in the world to regulate how lab animals were treated. It was received badly by both sides; anti-vivisectionists were unhappy because scientists were allowed to continue vivisecting, but only with a permit; scientists were unhappy because they worried that they would fall behind countries that didn’t have similar regulations.
Today, vivisection is only very rarely performed. That’s because science has passed the initial stage of “What on earth is going on inside the body?”, so now we broadly don’t need to. If a researcher has to see what’s going on inside a test subject animal’s body, they will typically kill it before performing an autopsy. And in all cases of vivisection today, anesthetic is used.
What Happens to Animals Used in Research?
Animals that are used in research typically meet a bad end. Studies often involve killing and examining the animals to see what effect something had on their bodies. In research papers, this is referred to as ‘sacrificing’. Failing that, the animal might be reused in future studies.
The rationale behind ‘sacrificing’ an animal during research is sound. Let’s say you want to study feline CKD, chronic kidney disease. This is a disease that has many stages, and gets progressively worse. Imagine that you’re the first scientist to ever study this disease, and you have to define the different stages; you can only do that by killing the test subjects at each stage and examining their kidneys. This of course doesn’t just apply to CKD, but to all manner of health issues.
In some cases, it’s possible to put an animal through multiple tests. This can be useful, as sometimes tests call for a cat that experienced food deprivation while younger, for example, or that has recovered from a certain condition. If the test subject ceases to be useful, though, it will be killed once research is over.
Sometimes, the animals are donated to shelters. One example is Xander, a cat who ‘escaped’ the system. Xander was donated to a shelter by a laboratory, but according to her owner, “the laboratory where Xander came from did not disclose what kind of research Xander was used for.” This is far from the norm, but it is one more reason to consider adopting a cat rather than buying one.
How Many Cats Die in Animal Testing?
The exact number of cats used in animal testing isn’t regularly published. However, there are estimates.
The American Anti-Vivisection Society stated that there were 24,564 cats used in U.S. laboratories in 2012, “and 9,272 of these were used in experiments that caused them pain and distress.” It isn’t clear where this number comes from, though. They go on to claim that the number each year is somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000.
PETA similary want to end the use of cats (and other animals) in research. They claim that “more than 19,000 cats are abused in U.S. laboratories every year,” but again, where these numbers come from and how accurate they are isn’t clear. What also isn’t clear is what proportion of these cats are killed at the end of experimentation.
The number of cats used in animal testing is lower around the world; in 2017 in the U.K., for example, only 71 cats were tested on for the first time that year. That number doesn’t account for cats that had been previously experimented on, but the number likely isn’t much higher.
Why Are Cats Used in Research Laboratories?
There are many reasons why scientists use cats in research. It isn’t done because scientists want to be cruel. So, why are cats in laboratories when scientists could use rats or mice instead?
Consistency in Research
The basic essence of science is to make predictions, conduct a test, and see whether the results were what you expected. As such, the consistency of the starting conditions is very important. It’s for this reason that a lot of research is done on the same kinds of animal, time and time again. Since cats have been used in research before, we’ve learned a lot about them, and how they respond to particular conditions; it makes sense for scientists to build on that body of knowledge, since the results would be inconsistent and shaky if another animal were used.
Cats Are Mammals, Like You & Me
The focus of most laboratory research is on discovering how the body works, how it responds to certain stimuli, and how it overcomes disease or illness. Ideally, things would be tested on people, so that we would know exactly how they interact with the human body. But because of ethical concerns and the potential for real harm, studies are done first on animals and then on people.
When research is done on animals, it’s done on animals that are similar to people. Cats are mammals like we are; so, while they’re different in some ways, they’re similar in others:
- We have reasonably similar brain structures
- We have the same internal organs
- We can experience many of the same diseases and illnesses
It’s for the same reason that rats, mice, monkeys and primates are used in research.
We Understand a Cat’s Needs
Because cats are such a popular pet, decades upon decades of research has been done into what foods they eat, what nutrients they need, what kind of housing and housing conditions they thrive in, and so on. While this research has helped the average pet owner care for their cat better, it has also allowed scientists to keep cats healthy in the context of scientific study. This is essential, as the results of testing could be compromised if the test subjects become sick or pass away.
Should Cats Be Used in Labs?
It would be very easy to say animal testing is cruel and be done with the debate. I, personally, couldn’t put a cat through the same things they’re put through in laboratories, and that likely applies to most people. But at the same time, there are good reasons why animal testing is done, and which should at least be considered.
The reasons against are obvious, so let’s start with the less obvious—the things in favor of animal testing.
- Animal testing improves medical care for people. Research is done into health issues and food safety to ensure the safety of people. In the modern world, we’re so used to our foods being safe and our healthcare being excellent that we take it for granted. But it was less than a hundred years ago that, for example, people were exposed to dangerous levels of lead, radiation and more in their products, shortening their lives. Animal testing helps prevent this.
- Research on cats helps people care for their cats better. Research improves the quality of food that manufacturers offer, improves how vets can diagnose and fix health conditions in cats, and gives owners the knowledge and tools they need to cohabit with their pets. You could argue that while being a test subject may be horrible for an individual cat, it improves the lives of our housecats, so the research at least isn’t without value.
- The alternatives are no testing, or testing on people. Not performing any testing would effectively make scientific advances impossible. Testing on people would result in people dying.
Besides that, somewhere around 97% of tests are done on rats and mice anyway. The proportion of cats, dogs and other higher order animals in research labs is low.
You’ll probably already be familiar with the reasons against animal testing.
- Animal testing can be cruel. Cats and other animals are purposefully made sick with diseases or illnesses, can be purposefully fed no food or unsuitable food, kept in cramped and unsuitable conditions, and not allowed to express their natural behaviors. If a person kept cats or bred cats in such poor conditions, they would be closed by animal protection organizations. Vivisection is particularly thought of as cruel.
- Animal testing often isn’t necessary. While many avenues of research are beneficial, many aren’t. Research is repeated and repeated to the point where it doesn’t need to be repeated any more, or done in areas that don’t strictly need to be researched, but are simply interesting.
- There are other animals that can be used in testing, so there’s no need to use companion animals. Rats and mice are the most common test subjects, and there’s little justification for not just using these species instead. Bear in mind that non-companion animals can experience pain and suffering in the same way that cats or dogs can, though.
It’s difficult to make a decision on where you stand with regards to animal testing. That’s because the benefits that animal testing brings don’t make it less cruel; at the same time, the cruelty of experimenting on animals doesn’t make the scientific advances it brings less beneficial. You could say that the reasons for animal testing are logical, while the reasons against are emotional, but that doesn’t make anybody right or wrong.