Every year, about 20,000 stray and abandoned cats are brought to Philadelphia animal shelters, including about 100 kittens a day during the summer months.
As most rescue workers know, almost every cat that enters a shelter develops an upper respiratory infection due to the close quarters and stress. Worse yet, some of those infections move into the eyes and cause corneal ulcers and even blindness.
It’s hard enough to find homes for "perfect" kittens, let alone those who have physical disfigurements like missing eyes or cloudy corneas. In order to treat those infections, shelters go through massive amounts of antibiotic eye ointment — which costs massive amounts of money and has recently been massively difficult to find due to drug shortages.
What to do?
One day, veterinarian Rachael Kreisler, a lecturer at Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, heard a rumor that could point to a win-win solution.
Apparently hospitals with obstetric wards throw away tons and tons of part-full "single use" tubes of antibiotic eye ointment. All babies born in American hospitals have erythromycin ointment squeezed into their eyes to prevent infections that might occur during birth.
If this was true, Kreisler thought, and if the Food and Drug Administration approves, and if hospitals would be willing to cooperate, who knows how many cats’ lives could be saved?
The FDA occasionally allows human drugs to be used on animals, and it turned out this was one of those cases. The erythromycin in those tubes is the same thing used in veterinary eye ointments, but it’s gentler than the stuff generally used on cats.
After talking with a nurse who worked on the labor and delivery floor of the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, the rumor was confirmed: Each newborn at the facility was treated with the medicine, and there’s always some left in the tube when it’s discarded. The nurse was thrilled by the idea that human medicine could save kittens, but the hospital’s regulatory department had to approve. They did, and so did the pharmacy, who reassured all parties that the kittens would not potentially be cross-contaminated by the used ointment.
The Philadelphia program started in September and was welcomed enthusiastically by all involved parties. Since labor and delivery wards can be found in just about every hospital in the U.S., it’s incredibly easy to replicate. What a great idea!