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Facts about use of cats in training at U.Va.

Last Updated: May 14, 2012

April 11, 2012 — For the past several years, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has repeatedly contacted the University of Virginia regarding its use of three cats in a delicate training protocol that saves teaches physicians how to intubate premature newborns who have stopped breathing.

During this time, PCRM has requested public records regarding the use of our cats, and the University has complied. PCRM continually has misrepresented much of the information in press releases, letters, and most recently in a newspaper ad. PCRM also contacted the Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney to intercede on behalf of the cats. The Commonwealth Attorney’s response supporting the University is included on this website.

There has been a great deal of misinformation about what we are doing and why. Perhaps the most troubling misinformation PCRM has put in its marketing materials is that our cats are not treated well and suffer from “severe pain and, at times, death.”

This is simply not true. We have used the same three cats for seven years. They are treated with the greatest of care, are very healthy – and are in no way harmed. In fact, our veterinarian works closely with our veterinary technicians to ensure that the cats are properly anesthetized and carefully monitored throughout a procedure, and that they receive post-procedural analgesia as needed. Only one cat is used in each session and there is only one session each quarter. The cats have ample toys, comfortable beds, and regular visits from staff members who engage in play. It is reassuring to note that, even when approached by visitors to the lab, the cats show no fear of people in white coats and approach all with affectionate rubs. When our cats are retired, they will be adopted to the home of a staff member.

We pay careful attention to how many times a cat is intubated and periodically examine the cats’ airways for any evidence of trauma. Our physicians view these cats as partners in teaching a procedure that requires great skill under pressure when it is performed on a premature newborn.

More than 1 million newborns either die or are seriously injured from perinatal asphyxia each year, but the majority can be successfully resuscitated if an an adequate airway can be secured — in less than a minute after breathing difficulty has been detected. Our physicians have carefully determined that in the case of infants weighing less than four pounds, no current simulator provides adequate training in tracheal intubation, the insertion of a tube into a baby’s airway when he or she is in distress. That said, anyone taking the training must first become proficient on a simulator.

We continue to look for a simulator that is able to mimic a live infant in distress. While we hope to find one sooner rather than later, we do not believe that it’s in the best interest of the premature infants — whom our physicians will be called on to treat — to cease training with animals in response to a misinformed public relations campaign. That is not good medicine.

If you would like to read more about this issue, we have included several other documents that tell the University’s story.

Steven T. DeKosky
Vice President and Dean of the School of Medicine