USDA Fed Cats and Dogs to Kittens, Alarming Watchdog Report Claims

Kittens were intentionally infected with a parasite at a USDA lab. The kitten shown here was NOT used in these experiments.
Kittens were intentionally infected with a parasite at a USDA lab. The kitten shown here was NOT used in these experiments. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

The title of the report says it all, "USDA Kitten Cannibalism." It seems hard to believe, but an investigation by a nonprofit watchdog group reveals that the U.S. government purchased hundreds of cats and dogs for stomach-churning research projects — projects that the watchdog group describes as "needless."

The research, carried out at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service's Animal Parasitic Disease Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, included feeding the remains of euthanized "meat market" animals to healthy lab cats and injecting the remains of parasite-infected cats into mice, according to NBC News, which acquired an early copy of the report released today (March. 19) by The White Coat Waste Project, a group aimed at ending wasteful animal testing.

According to NBC News, the investigation found that more than 400 dogs from Colombia, Brazil and Vietnam, as well as 100 cats from China and Ethiopia, were euthanized for lab food.

Apparently, the lab also breeds kittens in order to carry out research on the parasite Toxoplasma gondii; cats are the only host animal for the parasite's eggs. These cats were fed brain or muscle tissue from intentionally infected cats. This month, lawmakers announced they would introduce legislation to prevent the lab from infecting cats with the parasite and then later euthanizing and incinerating those cats after researchers collected the parasites from the animals' feces, according to another NBC News report.

The parasite T. gondii causes toxoplasmosis, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports as a leading cause of death attributed to foodborne illness in the United States; humans can become infected after consuming food or water contaminated with infected cat feces or from eating undercooked meat of animals harboring cysts of the parasite in their tissue, according to the CDC.

Though the lab's research has achieved some discoveries related to toxoplasmosis, according to report co-author Jim Keen, a former USDA scientist, the lab hasn't released any major breakthroughs in this area for 20 years, he told NBC News. (In 2015, Keen blew the whistle on mistreatment of cattle by the USDA in Nebraska.)

Here are some details from the report:

  • 42 cats purchased in China were killed, and their hearts and tongues were shipped to the USDA lab and injected into mice.
  • 48 stray cats rounded up in Ethiopia were killed, and their hearts were shipped to the lab and fed to mice.
  • 34 cats purchased at a Chinese meat market were killed, and their tongues, brains and hearts were fed to USDA lab cats.
  • 309 dogs acquired from a shelter in Colombia were killed, and their brains, tongues and hearts were fed to USDA lab cats.
  • 120 unclaimed Brazilian shelter dogs were killed, and the tongues, brains and hearts of 20 of them were fed to lab cats.
  • 42 dogs destined for a Vietnamese meat market were purchased and killed; the hearts, brains and tongues of some of these dogs were fed to USDA lab cats.

Originally published on Live Science.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.