Cats in the Lab

Uh, no, not this adorable assistance with human technology. We’re looking at animal testing today. Relax, it’s not as horrifying as you might think.

Leafing through old research papers can get really grisly when you read about some of the tests they performed on animals, including cats, to get their results.

Today, not so much.

It’s not the 1950s any more. Bad things still happen, sadly, but nowadays it results in big headlines and bad publicity more often than not. Government, media, the private sector, and fellow scientists are all watching.

The biggest recent animal-welfare story comes from the United States, where on February 3, 2017, the USDA removed warning letters, inspection reports, and other documents from a public database that included every commercial animal business in the country, including zoos and research centers. Information for some 8,000 facilities disappeared from public view.


Where’d it go? (Sagyle at Pixabay)

No one knows where it went.

The reason given for the removal of these records was privacy concerns, although the reports were edited for individual security and privacy purposes before going online.

Theoretically, the missing USDA inspection and abuse reports could still be obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but this process takes at least several months.

And often the information provided was heavily redacted. The National Geographic Society, for example–not known for its extreme positions on animal rights–got 1,771 completely blank pages in response to their FOIA request, which the Society put online.

The USDA says it can’t release information that is associated with ongoing lawsuits (and many were filed after the February 2017 federal move, in addition to ongoing animal-abuse cases using the formerly public information).

On April 9, 2018, some recent inspection reports–not those taken down in 2017 but a selection dating from March 2018 onward–appeared in the public database again. This only happened after Congress, while preparing to vote on the agency’s annual funding, pointed out that:

USDA’s actions to date do not meet the requirements in H. Rpt. 115-232 that the online searchable database should allow analysis and comparison of data and include all inspection reports, annual reports, and other documents related to enforcement of animal welfare laws. USDA is directed to comply with these requirements and is reminded that as part of its oversight responsibilities, Congress has the right to make any inquiry it wishes into litigation in which USDA is involved. USDA is directed to respond to any such inquiries fully.

It remains to be seen what will happen next.

In the meantime, zoos, research organizations, and others with an animal-related business, as well as anyone in a US jurisdiction that requires animal breeders and other sellers to show a clean USDA record, are all in the dark.


And shady deals go down in dark sometimes (though few probably involve Mayor McCheese). (Karl Palutke. CC BY-SA 2.0)

Meanwhile, in the sort of gentle “ahem” that sometimes wafts across the Atlantic during such US controversies, the Guardian posted an April 6, 2018, essay by a British researcher. It points out how well animal welfare legislation is working out in the UK.

Thinking back to my early days as a researcher, it is inconceivable . . . that any university would allow cameras into their animal units to film. This shows the culture change that is under way, but there is still work to be done. It is only by being more open with the public that we can show them the high welfare standards and the care that all research animals receive. In this way, I hope we can build trust in the organisations, and the scientists, engaged in animal research.

We all do want to believe that lab animals are treated well. Extremists who use threats, violence, or extravagant claims set this humane goal back by undermining trust in public institutions.

That trust has been shaken by the recent loss of transparency in the US, but researchers in the UK must follow some of the toughest animal-welfare laws in the world.

According to the RSPCA, scientists need need three licenses in order to use animals in their work: one for their establishment, a personal one for each individual who handles the animal, and a project license that is only granted if it can be proved that the project benefits people more than it harms the animals used in testing.

The “three R’s” for animal research are also promoted internationally:

  • Replacement of animal testing with other methods
  • Reduction of the number of animals tested
  • Refinement of tests to avoid life-long animal suffering

In India, a fourth “R”–rehabilitation–is added.

So how are cats faring in the midst of all this fuss?

The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) has a good page about cats in US research today (Here is a working link to those “Cats in Biomedical Research” notes).

The good news is that use of cats in the lab has plummeted in the US since the 1970s, when 74,000 cats were used in 1974. That number dropped, per ORI, to a little over 26,000 in 1997.

This was after the mid-1980s shift in public opinion, as well as passage of laws in several countries around the same time that made using cats in neurological research, once a common practice, much more costly in terms of both time and money. (National Research Council)

In 2016, according to the USDA’s last annual report (via Wikipedia), the lab cat population was down to 19,000. And in the UK that same year, the number of procedures on lab cats dropped almost 10%.

Maintaining openness is probably the biggest challenge for animal welfare in research labs. In some respects, scientists and government inhabit the same world–one that laypeople seldom see. This in itself isn’t bad: who wants to attend all those hearings in DC or London and show up at the lab every day to watch tests?

Human nature is the problem. Government officials and technologists get used to their work. Animal testing isn’t intended to be cruel. The testers and those who monitor them just get into a business-as-usual frame of mind that leads to horrors time and time again.

As G. K. Chesterton pointed out a century ago (in a very different context), the presence, via access by online databases, news documentaries, etc., of outsiders who aren’t numbed by familiarity and can spot inhumane practice instantly is the best way to prevent a lot of suffering and grief all around.

Featured image: Veronica Belmont. CC BY 2.0.


Badyal, D. K., and Desai, C. 2014. Animal use in pharmacology education and research: The changing scenario. Indian Journal of Pharmacology, 46(3), 257.

Daly, N. 2017. U. S. animal abuse records deleted–what we stand to lose. National Geographic, Last accessed April 10, 2018.

Daly, N., and Bale, R. 2017. We asked the government why animal welfare records disappeared. They sent 1,700 blacked-out pages. National Geographic. Last accessed April 11, 2018.

National Research Council. 2012. International animal research regulations: impact on neuroscience research: workshop summary. National Academies Press. PDF download Last accessed April 11, 2018.

Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). n.d. Reports and resources. Last accessed April 10, 2018.

Speaking of Research. n.d. UK Animal Research Statistics. Last accessed April 11, 2018.

United States House of Representatives, Bills This Week. 2018. Division A – Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriation Act 2018. Congressional Directives. PDF download: Last accessed April 11, 2018.

Wadman, M. 2017. Activists battle U. S. government in court over making animal welfare reports public. Science Magazine. Last accessed April 10, 2018.

Wadman, M. 2018. Update: After Congress complains, USDA restores animal welfare reports. Science Magazine. Last accessed April 10, 2018.

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