VA Continues to 'Torture' Cats in Medical Research, Rights Group Claims

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Photos and other records obtained by WCW allege that Copper the Cat was experimented on in a lab at the Cleveland VA.
Photos and other records obtained by WCW allege that Copper the Cat was experimented on in a lab at the Cleveland VA. (Photo: White Coat Waste Project)

Documents obtained by a taxpayer watchdog group shows that the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to conduct experiments on cats for medical research, even as Congress considers the Preventing Unkind and Painful Procedures and Experiments on Respected Species (PUPPERS) Act, legislation intended to halt most VA animal testing.

Since at least 2015, the Cleveland VA has been "torturing cats as young as 6 months old in disturbing constipation and incontinence experiments," which involve implanting electrodes to stimulate their bladders or colons, injecting artificial stool, and snapping their spines, said Justin Goodman, vice president of advocacy and public policy at the White Coat Waste Project, in a statement.

Most of the test subjects exhibited "distress, seizures, bloody urine, and even depression," an analysis of the medical records showed.

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The VA maintains that such research will improve medical care for veterans.

Last December, Congress enacted legislation to phase out most tests on dogs, cats, and primates at the VA. Furthermore, the PUPPERS Act, reintroduced in the House in February, would permanently defund unnecessary experiments on dog, cat and primate testing at the VA by the end of 2025. The only exceptions would be for studies whose objectives are designed to directly combat an illness and would require approval from the VA secretary.

The VA's fiscal 2021 funding bill, passed by the House on July 24, zeroes out funding for any experiments on dogs that cause pain or distress requiring pain medication, with narrow exceptions for service dog training programs.

In the end of last year, The White Coat Waste Project, a nonprofit that advocates for animal rights, made a Freedom of Information Act request for medical records and invoices related to cat tests from the VA. It obtained initial documents in May.

"They are still in the process of responding," Goodman said.

Since 2017, testing on dogs at the VA has been cut by nearly 75 percent, with some projects canceled before they launched, according to statistics from the department.

"The VA is still using dogs for medical research and funded by taxpayers through Congress," Goodman said. "The cat experiments are ongoing and have not been reduced yet compared with dog tests. ... These experiments are even not directly related to any illnesses."

The VA disputes that. 

"The cat research in Cleveland is directed at better managing complications experienced by Veterans who have sustained life-threatening spinal cord injuries," Christina Noel said. "These injuries cause impaired function of both the digestive system and urinary bladder, resulting in severe problems with chronic constipation and the need to have an implanted catheter to void urine. These conditions not only reduce quality of life, but also can result in not only urinary tract infections and bowel conditions that require additional hospitalizations and continuing suffering by the Veteran, but also autonomic neural dysfunction that can result in headaches, nausea, vomiting, and sweating."

VA officials said WCW’s position on VA canine research has been countered by a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) study, which reaffirmed that dogs are “scientifically necessary” for certain areas of research.

The cat experiments have received more than $3.2 million since 2016, including $200,000 in annual funding from the VA, and $3 million from the National Institutes of Health, he added.

“The cat research in Cleveland is directed at reversing complications experienced by Veterans who have sustained life-threatening spinal cord injuries,” a statement provided by the VA said. “These injuries cause both the digestive system and urinary system problems.”

Of the VA-funded research that depends on non-human vertebrate mammals -- less than half of the total -- 99% of tests are conducted with rats and mice, according to the VA, and less than 5% of the remaining 1% involves dogs, cats or nonhuman primates, it adds.

The White Coat Waste Project provided initial information showing that the VA purchases cats each August and September for research. This year, it will buy 35 cats, up substantially from eight in 2016, Goodman said.

"The taxpayers should not be forced to pay millions of dollars to the VA to buy healthy cats, cripple, mutilate, and videotape their abuse in wasteful and bizarre experiments," he added.

“VA has supported this type of research for decades and continues to do so because it is absolutely necessary to better treat life-threatening health conditions in our Veterans,” VA officials said.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who introduced the PUPPERS Act last year and led related efforts in the fiscal 2021 appropriations legislation, said in a statement that the VA's cat experiments are "sickening."

"I'm proud that the House recently passed the language I drafted with Army veteran [Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla.] to eliminate taxpayer funding for the VA's cruel and unnecessary dog testing."

Titus said she will continue working on ending such tests and redirecting VA resources to humane research tools.

The White Coat Waste Project stated it’s still urging Congress to pass the bipartisan PUPPERS Act to permanently defund all painful dog experiments at the VA.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the VA's self-reported percentage of experiments using dogs, cats and primates, to add an additional statement from the VA and to clarify the language in the fiscal 2021 VA funding bill.

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