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Really? Med Students Are Still Using Cats as Training Tools?

Washington University in St. Louis said it would stop using cats to teach students. It hasn't.

 |  Oct 25th 2013  |   20 Contributions


Earlier this year, Washington University medical school drew lots of fire from animal rights groups because medical students were learning how to intubate babies by using cats as a model. In response, officials at the school said they were going to stop the program, but it seems they didn’t.

Nine cats are still in the medical school’s care and are still being used in a pediatric life support class.

This vet tech did a perfect job of intubating my cat, Kissy. The tube went in on the very first attempt, and she made it look easy.

We probably wouldn’t have heard about this at all if the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine hadn’t followed up and organized a doctor-led protest outside the medical school.

The PCRM surveyed nearly 200 pediatric residency programs in the U.S., and only three -- Washington University and two affiliated with the military -- are still using cats as teaching tools for intubating babies.

The school says it can’t possibly use only simulators to train residents to place breathing tubes in babies. After all, they say, research indicates that pediatric residents only succeed in 20 to 35 percent of their initial attempts to intubate infants.

Dr. John Pippin of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says other studies have shown that students trained entirely on simulators actually do a better job at intubating than those who were trained with live cats.

It's definitely humane (and necessary) to intubate a cat for surgery so her airway stays open and she gets enough oxygen and gas anesthesia.

What it really boils down to, though, is one question: Is it humane or kind to have medical students fumbling around and trying to put breathing tubes in live cats? I say no, especially because other more helpful training tools have been developed.

Have you ever been intubated? I have, and I woke up with a very sore throat. Even when a breathing tube is placed correctly and it only takes one attempt, the tube still irritates the vocal cords and causes swelling, pain and hoarseness.

Now imagine this procedure repeated dozens of times by classes full of medical students. Did you know that bungled intubations can cause problems ranging from cracked teeth to punctured lungs?

The school says the cats are only intubated several times annually over three years before being put up for adoption. You know what I say?

Bull. Photo: Shutterstock

Washington University should haul itself into the 21st century. The technology exists to make this cruelty unnecessary. Missouri-born former game show host Bob Barker even offered the school $75,000 to buy two high-tech simulators. But the school was like, “Nah, we’ve got simulators, but we’ll just keep using the cats, too.”

I hope lots of wealthy and animal-loving WashU alumni tell the school that the flow of money is going to stop until the school stops this barbaric practice.

What do you think? Do you work in a field where you place breathing tubes in people or in cats? Is it cruel to use cats as teaching tools? How often do medical residents succeed in intubating people of any age on the first try? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer, professional cat sitter, and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.

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