Cats at UVA Med School

About 40 people rallied at the University of Virginia today to demand that the medical school stop using live cats to teach young physicians and paramedics how to insert a breathing tube into newborn infants.

Dr. Ulka Agarwal stood outside the Rotunda talking with reporters about the campaign mounted by her employer – the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine. That group says the University of Virginia should adopt state-of-the-art technology to train doctors and first responders who may someday have to help a newborn baby, struggling to breathe.

“They’re using cats to train the residents to treat humans, and you don’t have to be a doctor to know that the anatomy of a cat or kitten is very different from that of a newborn human, and now that there are lifelike simulators that simulate a newborn, there is just no excuse for still using cats and kittens,” said Agarwal.

She was surrounded by about three dozen people who agreed. “I wanted to be there to show my support for the cats who have no voice, who are being mistreated and brutalized at the medical school,” said Stanardsville resident and cat owner Carol Bratton.

From inside UVA’s Rotunda, pediatrician John Kattwinkel told the media that only three cats are involved, and they’re actually an excellent model for learning to intubate infants. He said the university uses two mannequins for preliminary training, but they’re not ideal. “The reflexes are not there, the feeling the tissues is not there, and it’s a tricky task and it has to be done in 30 seconds, and the mannequin certainly is not an adequate model,” said Kattwinkel.

He says most universities had caved to public pressure rather than stand up for the best teaching techniques, and UVA’s staff veterinarian, Sandy Feldman, insisted the three cats used in training – Alley, Kiki and Fiddle — are anesthetized and do not suffer. “The day after they have this, we give them analgesics for pain, and we give them soft food to eat in case their throat is sore, and then this procedure is not done again for almost a year. These are three cats that we take very good care of, and we like to think that they’re helping us take care of innocent children that are in trouble. Some of these people come into this class. When they have to do this to a live animal, they can’t do it. They freeze up because they’re worried they’re going to do harm. Can you afford to have them freeze up when they’re treating an infant that’s in trouble?” asked Feldman.

Feldman added that several inspectors had certified the humane treatment of the animals, which are purchased from a laboratory supply breeder and are retired after ten years of service.“They live in about 440 square feet of space these three cats, which is substantially larger than my office. They have all kinds of toys. We groom them every day and give them treats. We’ve been visited by the state veterinarian, by the Commonwealth Attorney of Albemarle County, the USDA inspector. They all met the cats. They interacted with the cats. They find absolutely no problem. I’ve worked on racetracks and seen a lot of things. I’ve been in the food animal industry. Let me tell you something. This is nice. If I was a cat, this is the program to be in.”

He said 500 people had trained on the cats since they were acquired in 2004, and he asked the public to put this situation in perspective. “What’s more important – three cats that are very well cared for, or your daughters and sons, your grandchildren?” He suggested animal lovers consider the plight of 7 million feral cats in this country – or the 3.5 million shelter animals euthanized each year, and Kattwinkel proposed they help raise money for development of virtual reality training, which would give health care professionals the real feel of inserting a breathing tube and allow for the permanent retirement of training cats.

— Sandy Hausman

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