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Cats in Research
Cats hold a very special place in society. They are one of the most cherished companion animals in our country, with their stature rising to the level of family member in many American households. Despite their special standing, however, cats continue to be used in research, testing and teaching in the U.S., with 18,146 cats being used for these purposes in 2017, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. This represents a 4% decrease in use from 2016, and a 76% decrease since their peak use in 1974. In 2017, 2.3% of Animal Welfare Act-covered species used in research, testing and teaching in the U.S. were cats.
Cats have been used extensively as research subjects in neurological studies, in studies of vision and hearing, and to study immunodeficiency diseases. They have been used both as models for human diseases and for studies specific to animal diseases. They also serve as research subjects in toxicological and other safety evaluations.
Most cats used in research are purchased from Class A dealers, licensed breeders that sell “purpose-bred” cats specifically for research, in part because the National Institutes of Health (NIH) implemented a policy prohibiting the procurement of cats from Class B dealers using NIH grant funds beginning in FY2012. Purpose-bred cats are genetically selected to be docile and have an even temperament.
Once in the laboratory, cats are housed in spaces according to their weight, based on recommendations in The Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. It is recommended that cats less than 9 pounds have a minimum floor area of three square feet per animal and cats more than nine pounds have at least four square feet per animal. The Guide also recommends that cage height be at least two feet and that the vertical space have perches, which may require taller cages.
Cats are highly intelligent animals, and when confined in restrictive laboratory environments, suffer from specific problems including boredom, fearfulness, aggression towards people and other cats, and self-mutilation, although researchers attempt to enrich the environment of laboratory cats.
Aside from their use for these purposes, cats have historically been used in classroom dissection exercises. A 2014 survey of middle and high school teachers and students revealed that cats continue to be used for this purpose, with nearly 20% of teachers and 10% of students indicating that they had used cats as dissection specimens. Cats that are used as dissection specimens are obtained from animal shelters after the animals have been euthanized, and these animals are not included in the USDA statistics on cat use in this country.