At a pediatric training course operated by the University of Virginia, residents practiced putting a tube down the throat of a calico cat named Fiddle 22 times in one session. A kitten named Alley went through as many as 19 intubation procedures while anesthetized.
These and other allegations are contained in a letter that the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine plans to file today with the Virginia attorney general’s office, requesting an investigation into what it calls violations of the state’s animal-cruelty law.
“Animals used in these procedures may suffer tracheal bruising, bleeding, scarring, and severe pain, and they risk death,” according to the letter, signed by Dr. John Pippin, PCRM’s director of academic affairs.
“If someone who had cats in their home did these things to them, they would be charged with animal cruelty,” Pippin said in a phone interview.
Brian Gottstein, a spokesman for the Virginia attorney general’s office, declined in an e-mail to comment on the PCRM complaint.
Founded in 1985, the Washington-based PCRM advocates best practices in public health, nutrition and ethical research techniques, and the removal of animals from medical research. Its membership includes 115,000 medical professionals, scientists, laypersons and educators and more than 10,000 physicians, Pippin said.
The group uncovered the cat incidents using the Virginia Public Records Act. The committee has been urging the university to stop using cats for intubation training.
Virginia’s animal-cruelty law prohibits “willfully” inflicting inhumane injury or pain that’s “not connected with bona fide scientific or medical experimentation.” Intubation involves inserting a plastic tube into a person’s trachea to facilitate breathing.
“These intubations are not any type of scientific experimentation,” Pippin said in the interview. “It’s merely repetitive training. It’s purely teaching a critical manual skill.”
According to documents Pippin’s group obtained through the Virginia Public Records Act, trainees intubated Fiddle at least 16 times on May 14, 2009; 18 times on Sept. 24, 2009; and 11 times on May 20 last year. Kiki, a female tortoiseshell, had tubes inserted in her throat 12 times in January this year.
Dr. Alix Paget-Brown, clinical director of Virginia’s neonatal emergency transport system division, said by e-mail that cats “are well anesthetized and sedated” during intubation procedures.
“The benefit given to participants from the experience of intubating a live, breathing caring animal with secretions and a mobile tongue, none of which have successfully been duplicated in a mannequin, is invaluable in their training and ability to successfully intubate a sick newborn human,” Paget-Brown said.
Pippin asked University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan in a letter this month to stop using cats and use simulators instead.
Virginia is one of 11 U.S. pediatric residency programs that use live animals for teaching purposes, according to a PCRM survey of 186 research programs. The other institutions that PCRM has contacted to stop the use of animals include Indiana University, Medical College of Wisconsin, University of Arizona and University of California, San Diego.
Pippin said it isn’t necessary to use cats for intubation training because there are human-like simulators now available.
University of Virginia spokeswoman Carol Wood said in an e-mailed statement that its medical center uses simulators “whenever possible to train students and residents.”
The university doesn’t euthanize cats and they are put up for adoption after they are used for training, she said.