Why Did the USDA Perform ‘Cat Cannibalism’ Experiments?

A new watchdog report claims that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been purchasing cats and dogs at meat markets abroad to use in gruesome experiments here in the United States.

The experiments, according to the report, involved feeding their body parts to healthy cats as well as injecting them into mice.

The report was published online yesterday (March 20) by a nonprofit organization called The White Coat Waste Project. It says that the experiments were conducted by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in the name of research that had a very limited impact on improving public health.

The purpose was to research toxoplasmosis, an infection caused by the common parasite Toxoplasma gondii, said Justin Goodman, the vice president of The White Coat Waste Project, who helped write the report.

Toxoplasmosis is one of the most common parasitic infections in the world, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is also a leading cause of death due to foodborne illness in the U.S.

People can become infected in various ways such as by eating undercooked meat or shellfish that is contaminated with T. gondii cysts and drinking contaminated unpasteurized goat’s milk, or through exposure to cat poop. Indeed, cats play an important role in the life cycle of the parasite: They become infected by eating infected rodents, birds or other small mammals, and then can shed millions of oocysts in their feces for up to three weeks.

By feeding the lab cats the tongues, hearts and brains of dogs and cats from abroad, the USDA hoped to understand how prevalent toxoplasmosis was in animals around the world, Goodman told Live Science.

The White Coat Waste Project says that they think these “cat cannibalism” experiments started in 2003 and continued until at least 2015, Goodman said. (It’s unclear whether they are still going on now, he added.) The report lists multiple cases of the experiments: for example, in one instance, more than 300 Colombian shelter dogs were killed, and their brains, tongues and hearts fed to USDA lab cats; in another, nearly 50 stray cats from Ethiopia were killed, and their hearts fed to mice in the lab.

These experiments, along with the others conducted on kittens in the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service’s Animal Parasitic Disease Laboratory (APDL) in Maryland, all fall under the umbrella of “toxoplasmosis research,” Goodman said.

Last year, the same group released a report on another project at the lab in which researchers bred up to 100 kittens each year. Once the kittens turned 2 months old, the researchers fed them raw meat that was contaminated with the parasite, according to that report. Then, the researchers harvested the parasites’ eggs from the kittens’ feces for use in food safety experiments.

But after they did that, the researchers euthanized the no-longer useful but perfectly healthy kittens, Goodman said — kittens that could have been adopted. The USDA is thought to have killed nearly 4,000 kittens in this way, The White Coat Waste Project alleged. The project was still ongoing as of a couple months ago, but lawmakers recently reintroduced a bill called the “KITTEN Act”— first introduced last year — that if passed, could permanently end the USDA practice of killing kittens.