A poll on kitty experimentation

There is an extremely common sort of experiment to understand plasticity of the developing brain. These are important experiments to understand an important phenomenon: the brain does not simply unfold ineluctably to produce a fully functional organ, but actually interacts constantly with its environment to build a functioning organ that is matched to the world it must model and work with. This was one of the very first things I learned as a budding neuroscientist; my first undergraduate research experience was in the lab of Jenny Lund at the University of Washington, where we were given prepared slices of embryonic and infant human brains (the products of abortions, stillbirths, and childhood mortality) and counted dendritic spines in the visual cortex. The brain is constantly remodeling itself, and is especially doing so in young individuals.

Now in those old observations, we weren't really manipulating either the brain or the environment: you don't get to do that with human babies! All we were doing was documenting the natural progression of synaptic connection density — which, by the way, declines rapidly as the brain learns and refines. What we could see anatomically is that as young children adapt to their environment, the brain is busily pruning and shifting connections — but what we couldn't see is what was causing those changes, or what effect those anatomical changes had on visual processing.

For that, you have to tinker. And since you can't do that with human babies, you have to go to animal models.

And the most common animal models for studying the visual system in humans are mammals: cats (also ferrets, for technical reasons involving some of the pathways). And since we're interested in the plasticity of the brain in young, developing animals, you can see where this is going.

Neuroscientists do experiments on kittens.


Actually, it sort of does. The Mirror just put up an article decrying kitten experimentation, with lots of quotes from celebrities moaning in horror.

Ricky Gervais: “I am appalled that kittens are being deprived of sight by having their eyelids sewn shut. I thought sickening experiments like these were a thing of the past.”

Why, no, Ricky. These experiments go on right now. It's how we learn to understand the role of sensory input in shaping the function of the visual cortex.

Michelle Thew of The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection: “This is unacceptable cruel research. The public will be shocked to learn of publicly-funded experiments where kittens have been subjected to this.”

Of course they will, because your organization will beat the drum of ignorance and lie about their practice and utility.

Dr Ned Buyukmihci, a vet: “The eyelid procedures would have been painful for the kittens. There are substantial differences in cats versus humans. There are established methods of obtaining information humanely.”

I've done experiments like these in the past, and even more substantial surgical manipulations. The investigators know how to do these experiments humanely: we know about anesthesia, for instance, and anything involving surgery on animals is tightly policed by Institutional Review Boards (actually, they tend to be discouraged by IRBs, but that's a different complaint), which usually have veterinarians serving on them. If Buyukmihci has evidence that these surgeries were done in a way that did not minimize suffering, he should speak up, and the neuroscience community would join him in deploring them.

But these protocols went through Cardiff University’s ethical review process and the Home Office Animals in Science Regulation Unit. There's no reason to think they were anything less than impeccable.

Ralph Cook, some politician or bureaucrat: “It’s an academic producing a paper which is meaningless and can’t be transferred to humans. Vivisection is completely wrong.”

No, actually, most of this research isn't just an abstract pursuit of knowledge (although there's nothing wrong with that, either). This is research that is directly applicable to alleviating human suffering. Treatment of visual system disorders in children is informed directly by these kinds of experiments: they tell us about the sensitivity of the visual system to abnormalities in inputs and long term effects of sustained aberrations. I had a child with 'lazy eye' at birth: the doctors (as well as the parents in this case) knew how important it was to correct this problem as quickly as possible, and gave us protocols (tested in cats!) that we could implement until she was old enough to get surgery.

Ingrid Newkirk, PETA's fanatical nutball: "Not only is sewing shut the eyes of kittens ethically and morally abhorrent, it is so crude and cruel that it sets science back decades. The kittens will suffer from having their eyes sewn shut and will also experience psychological distress from being reared in the dark. We learn far more about what happens in humans by investing in state-of-the-art research methods that provide reliable data on human experience."

Scientists don't do these experiments to get their jollies torturing kittens. These are experiments that advance our understanding of the wiring of the brain.

I agree that there is an amount of suffering involved, and having done similar work, I also know that good investigators do their best to minimize it. My second job as an undergraduate was as an animal care assistant in a surgery, and one of the things I was paid to do was to spend a few hours a day just playing with post-op cats and kittens, and making sure that their housing was clean and comfortable. These were conscientious scientists. They needed to do these experiments, but they also cared about the animals. I was really impressed with their concern and respect for the animals they had to do experiments on.

(By the way, this was an animal surgery that was also used as a training unit for the medical school. One other thing I learned there was that while Ph.D. researchers were people with a deep affection for their subjects, M.D. students were assholes who didn't give a damn. I hope they learned some humanity later in their careers, because I didn't see it at the early stage when they were practicing on animals.)

So, after doing a hatchet job on the research and quoting lots of ignorant celebrity wankers and cranky nobodies, the Mirror has a poll. This will be a challenge: you're going to have to go up against the whole kitty-loving internet to shift this one.

Is the scientific experiment on kittens acceptable?

Yes 7.44%

No 92.56%

Good luck with that one.

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So, they sew the kittens eyelids shut but make sure to minimize suffering? Yep, good luck justifying that. BTW, I've been reading your blog for a couple years and this is the first time I've disagreed with you. Kind of like a mini-Dachau for cats...

You said, "I agree that there is an amount of suffering involved." The rest is just an attempt to justify causing that suffering. You barely touch on the trade off of human advancement vs. animal suffering and never weigh in on how causing animals to suffer is definitely not an advance. If you can't admit that up front, in much stronger terms than you do here, the rest of your article is not worth reading.

Hey, despite the fact that this sound hugely agressive, I think that's the best way for the creatures. Cats have very large space needs, blinding them perhaps changes that. Also, we need more knowledge on the brain. The poll is now 26% as I post. I voted for it. People wouldn't care if it was a feral feline, they're just concerned because they think of cute kittens when looking at this kind of study.

Being a an animal lover, I am disgusted at this practice. Being a researcher, I am disgusted at this practice. I hate that we have written laws and proceedures to prevent harm to other species but that they can be bent. I'm sorry, just because we are at the top of the pecking order doesn't mean we have any right to do this to any species. Full stop. This was done to alliviate pain and sufferingto humans? Maybe we should start accepting the fact that we can not control everything on this planet and start living in some sort of harmony. AND, if it is not acceptable to do this to human babies, why the hell is it acceptable to do this to the young of any species.

Maybe it would be worthwile to explicitly explain why is experimenting on fellow mammals OK, but experimenting on people is not. After all, people are animals, too.

That said, I need to state that I am aware that these experiments are crucial to learning things in biology. Not everything can by discovered by fiddling with computer models and observing.

I agree that there is a degree of hypocrisy involved here, due to the experiments being conducted on kittens, and that many people will express outrage and then tuck into their ham sandwich. However, the issue at stake is whether we have the right to breed and harm (and generally commodify) a sentient being for the sake of another. I find this extremely problematic from an ethical standpoint, and would feel that way about the use of any sentient being. I should add that as a vegan who is very much pro-science and who advocates for greater rationality in the animal rights movement, it pains me to hear a lot of ignorant talk from fellow vegans on the subject of scientific research, which is misunderstood and demonized. I also categorically reject the violence threatening researchers, which is just as ethically troubling as the invasive research that causes suffering to nonhuman animals. It is wrong-headed and simplistic to assume that vivisectors are just evil people foaming at the mouth and rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of hurting animals. While I oppose the use of nonhumans in research, we should at least acknowledge that, unlike other uses of nonhuman animals, its goals are not frivolous. That doesn't make it less ethically problematic, but it makes it understandable. That could be the starting point for a rational discussion. Some scientists are now becoming more vocal in their opposition to in vivo research. Unfortunately groups such as PeTA, with their crass and offensive campaigns and their success in dumbing down the conversation, are holding back any hope of a meaningful dialogue between scientists and rights advocates.

Most the people involved with animal research are there because they can't get into med school and they don't know what to with the biology degree they have. For the most part animal research is redundant and is really just a welfare programs for science graduates that can't do anything else.

Karl, you ignorant moron, no.

People go into research because they're really interested in the science and the questions, not because it's a consolation prize for med school dropouts. Those of us in research don't see med school or premed programs as doing a particularly good job training people for scientific work at all.

You know, it's troubling. I support basic research. And yet . . . is this necessary? I wish you'd discuss more *why* this can't be done in other ways, and how we're going to know when we know enough that we can stop, or transfer to a different way of doing things. How does one settle on a particular technique (sewing eyelids closed vs. laser blinding vs. cutting an optic nerve)? Are there bars to the things we could do to animals because we want to know? How are these thresholds decided?

That discussion would be far more interesting and helpful than "trust me, this is necessary and I'm sure these people are nice, which precludes them from being wrong about this".

Just one more thought-don't be too quick to insult or marginalize PETA. I used to think the same thing, that they were a group of fanatic lunatics, until I looked into some of their claims and found they were true. Some of their claims seemed unbelievable-lab testing on rabbits for cosmetics, abuse and mutilation of animals on factory farms...all common knowledge now.

PETA has done more to help animals than any organization in the world, starting with their first undercover investigation in the early 1980's, where they exposed hideous abuse and torture of monkeys who were subjected to pointless experiments.

By JohnnyGold (not verified) on 24 Jul 2012 #permalink

To Kerry,
Just wanted to say thank you for your comment - it mirrors my own thoughts exactly. This is something I think about a lot and for which there isn't a clear answer in my head.

In that vein, I think the addition of an "I'm not sure" or "It depends..." kind of option to the poll might be a good idea.

I don't generally read your column because, to be frank, I think you're a bit abrasive and you seem to assume your generally smarter than your audience as well as your opponents. Personally, I don't care for fundie religions because they are intolerant of the opinions of others and I've found your beliefs to be similarly intolerant, and similarly egocentric. But, BUT, BUT....this time, I had to read. I own two cats, I'm currently experiencing a great deal of social isolation in my small community primarly, in my opinion because despite the fact I don't particularly drink much,. a number of folks have decided I should join AA. And although I initially attended, this turned into an obvious demand that I become a born again Christian. Not something I wanted, at all. So, I've got two great loving cats that are, quite frankly, the only friends I've got. They are companions and help keep me going through some fantastically tough times. As far as I'm concerned humanity, particularly those I've come in contact with, don't do a lot to leave me feeling particularly compassionate towards any human beings. Now, having told you all of that. I find myself, very reluctantly, very sadly, being forced to agree with you. I detest the notion of any living thing being put in pain. It is a wrong I wish there was a means to correct. Unfortunately, given a choice between a (for lack of a better word) less sentient creature suffering and a more sentient creature suffering....the less sentient creature loses out. In other words, you sir, are very unfortunately correct. In this instance, these kittens must have their eyes sewn shut so that human beings can live better lives and have greater sight. Perhaps one day, the knowledge we gain from this unfortunate situation can build a better existence for all life forms. Personally, I think that is the case.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 24 Jul 2012 #permalink

How many animals are euthanized each year? Because their owners do not spay and neuter? A blind cat in a lab probably has a better life than most cats in the wild. And longer.

I have been a vegetarian for 45 years -- the last eight of which I have lived on a ranch/farm. Nature is no genial hostess. There is killing and killing and killing all the time, in every niche.

And PETA people ARE crazy. Not because they see animals as having rights (including not being eaten by hypocrites), but because they do not look at the whole picture. Nor do they want to.

By Another Playaguy (not verified) on 24 Jul 2012 #permalink

Poll's looking good: 49.9% v. 50.1%

Just need another few YESes.

As an added bonus, check out the frothing-mouthed comments...hahahahaha

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 24 Jul 2012 #permalink

I support this type of animal research, as long as pain and suffering are kept to a minimum and state and federal laws are followed in the laboratory to assure this. I would be more disheartened and feel more guilty if I saw a human infant have to live with a disease or disorder that could have been cured or treated using animals as research subjects. Using animals in research to improve and treat the lives of human is unfortunately necessary, but nevertheless, necessary.

Usually love this blog but not this time.PZ gets upset about the sick scum who encase a kitten in concrete,hang on,the person who did it might have a PHd in biology and it was for an abstract pursuit of knowledge so there is"nothing wrong with that".But of course all this stuff with the kittens has to be justified by showing how it leads to better understanding of visual disorders,ok but how many experiments of this kind have to be done?is every academic paper checked first in case they don't need to repeat this particular experiment as it's already given the information needed?.Do you have any limits on what should be done?none?as long as an ethics review process has been followed then anything goes?yeah right I am sure that there is total agreement between every ethics review in the world.
"Scientists don't do these experiments to get their jollies torturing kittens"?no scientist in the world is a sexual sadist?really?when was this study conducted?how often is their mental health checked?.
I am not intelligent enough or hard working enough to be a scientist but NO amount of money or the need to get published(which let's be honest is a strong motivator for some of these people)would be enough to get me to do these bizarre acts.

By Andy Edwards (not verified) on 25 Jul 2012 #permalink

Seriously, why is animal experimentation continuously thought of as "some jerks hurting animals because they cannot be bothered to 'do it right'"? Yes, everyone would much rather not harm animals, but that just isn't applicable in a lot of research.

To Kerry, wow.. I'd say you read my mind, but my mind is NOT that articulate.
PZ, thanks for the article. It's very thought provoking. While the thought of kittens being blinded made me cringe, I'm glad the posting offered an in-depth explanation.

I must say having read this article I was persuaded away from my original opinion of disgust. I had difficulty understanding the necessity for these experiments, but this blog was helpful in justifying it. However referring to celebs who oppose this as "Ignorant celebrity wankers" does nothing to add the weight of your argument, and if anything it weakens it. A bit ad hominem I think. It is understandable that people would be upset about this, because most people with any empathy are rightly disgusted by the idea of any animal's suffering, so to mock them so openly for being upset by something so easily classified as abhorrent is arrogant.

@Vince Whirlwind: Gloating comments and derisive laughter don't make you-or your viewpoint-look very attractive.

Andy Edwards: "is every academic paper checked first in case they don’t need to repeat this particular experiment as it’s already given the information needed?.Do you have any limits on what should be done?"

Yes and yes.

Check out Drug Monkey's discussion of some of the regulations in the US here:


In my experience, the regulations in the UK are even stricter so you can be sure each and every study gets close scrutiny before any animals are involved.

Kitten controversy: 46% of people say stitching up kittens' eyes for science is OK

I'm not sure whether this post could be responsible, but the poll came out almost even. Of course, the inevitable consequence of having marshalled a force to influence the voting here is that now the commentators on the new article are saying that the poll is skewed by Pharyngula "trolls".

I have myself been commenting on the story here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/07/24/ricky-gervais-appalled-by-ki…

However the moderators on HuffPo obviously have a stance on this issue and are deleting or rejecting comments that are supportive of the research (leaving the debate now comically one-sided).

By Alex Baldwin (not verified) on 25 Jul 2012 #permalink

A question I have is do the eyes atrophy and if so at what age markers? If the correct people are on the ethics boards I don't have an issue.

By broboxley OT (not verified) on 25 Jul 2012 #permalink

The commentors on that mirror article (and some of the commenters here, I'm afraid) are fantastically childish. How many commentators have deplored this research as Nazi-like against 'innocent animals' and then in their next sentence endorsed experimentation on humans? Every two or three years I think I've hit the bottom of the internet's idiot pool and then along comes an article like this.

No one - no one - says that there's not a moral dilemma here. Of course there is. But if we want to better understand neurology, and if we want to address serious medical problems, these are trade-offs we have to make. This kind of research -- which if you had ever taken Psych 101 you would know is extremely common -- is conducted because there aren't other viable options.

All of the scientists I know are constantly on the phones with their vet techs, going in on weekends to check on their animals, and are genuinely concerned about the well-being of their subjects. Many of them would even be involved in the animal rights movement if it wasn't so chock-full of illiterate terrorists.

By TedRaskol (not verified) on 26 Jul 2012 #permalink

My first "real" job out of college was working in a laboratory doing research on cervical cancer. We inserted inactivated HSV II virus into female mice to see if we could induce cervical cancer. It turns out that we were looking at the wrong virus and that HPV, not HSV was the culprit. There is now a vacine for HPV that will no doubt save suffering for many women. I will have my daughter vaccinated when the time is appropriate. Even though many mice lived and died miserably, the net result of the scientific method was to come up with the understanding that will help save the suffering of many women. There are those who would say that "another way" should have been found to come up with the solution and that not even a single mouse should have ever been harmed in the pursuit of the goal. But until you have a solution, you don't know what that other way might have been. I did feel bad about what I was doing to the mice, but I knew the reasons for doing it were good reasons.

@Jemma: You were open-minded, investigated the issue and changed your mind based on a deeper understanding of the facts. That's what a thoughtful, rational person does. There are many who are thoughtless and offer knee-jerk responses and absolutes that inflame irrational passions and muddy the waters, such as a number of the celebrities who remain willfully ignorant. I think those celebrities who willfully choose to remain ignorant of the facts in the debate can reasonably be classified as "wankers."

I wonder if this news would have gotten the press it has if it had been rats whose eyes had been sewn shut. I bet a study involving a ferret or varmint-like creature would show a more popular polling. As far as suffering goes, can kittens truly suffer or just feel pain? Isnt there a cognitive self awareness (that kittens dont have) that has to be present in order to suffer? I by no means think they do not feel at least some pain, however I am not sure they suffered. Anyway another great post PZ, really enjoyed your stuff on Carl Zimmer and his recent fiasco with IDiots! haha!

By Garner Boogaerts (not verified) on 26 Jul 2012 #permalink

Garner - My cat regularly demonstrates that she thinks and feels, and she's evolved to use vision in her daily life, so I imagine that blinding her would cause her suffering.

The problem with Myers' argument is he's implying this modern-day kitten-blinding might improve human welfare (somehow, someday) and so if you object to it, you hate handicapped baybees or some such. But the men who were blinding kittens sixty years ago said the same. Apparently they did not manage to gain deep and useful knowledge about the plasticity of the brain, or they would have written it down and today's kitten-blinders could just look it up and utilize it. Why are we supposed to assume that today's experimenters will gain more useful knowledge? Because Science can't fail to deliver whatever we want, sooner or later? (I see from Dr. Myers' rhetorical style, above, that even suggesting it might not will make me one of the bad people - which suits me just fine.)


The "men who were blinding kittens sixty years ago" (I would have preferred perhaps "neuroscientists first attempting to understand brain development and plasticity") gained extremely deep and useful knowledge about the brain. Just one example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_H._Hubel

Hubel's research aided the treatment of childhood cataracts and strabismus.

Indeed, they wrote down their results.

You seem to not appreciate the vast complexity of the brain. It's not a matter of performing an experiment sixty year ago and then patting oneself on the back for a job well done. We are still very much scratching the surface of how the brain operates and the scientific community continues to work to better understand it.

To respond to your point "why are we supposed ot assume that today's experimenters will gain more useful knowledge?" A: Because they are asking new questions based upon the results of previous experiments, and because technology has advanced and scientists now have even better instruments with which to study the subject.

No one is suggesting that you are a bad person. But your reasoning is indeed bad. Don't dismiss this important research out of hand because of ignorance of the field. A great place to start reading about Psychology/Neuroscience is The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. It doesn't address these specific experiments, but it does provide an introduction to the brain and its complexity.

By TedRaskol (not verified) on 27 Jul 2012 #permalink

Well said PZ, it is necessary for scientific progress. It is such a shame luddites will beat their ignorance drums loud, they outnumber the better people.

Luckily they are easily dismissed and ignored, most of the time.

Jane- The kittens were euthanized after 12 weeks. A 12 week old kitten and a fully adult cat are totally different cognitively. Felling and pain are different. Suffering involves the ability to remember old pain and dread future pain. Unfortunately, we as humans forget that our reality is not the same reality as a cats (or kittens). Although a cat feels and thinks, it is in a totally different way than we as humans do. Although we may wish cats to be like us they are not. Look up Ivan Pavlov and his experiments with learned response. He studied dogs and there response to food (being salivation). He described this as an unlearned response then he associated a bell with food. The dog eventually gained a learned response and would salivate in response to the bell alone (no food present). This is the same with when you spank a dog and your voice changes. A dog will cower and give you "puppy-eyes" when you lower your voice, because he associates pain with your low voice. This, however, does not mean that the dog feels guilt (knowing what he did was wrong) but that he associates pain with a lower voice. However, a human will immediately think a dog knows what it did because its reaction to a lowered angry voice. I say all this to explain, that humans can misunderstand what exactly a cat feels and thinks. I do not doubt your cat thinks but I believe it is in a different way that you think. Back to my original point, a kitten (or cat) can feel pain but suffer? I do not think so. Also, the bottom line is animal tests do bring about results (medical breakthroughs) and human test do not happen (for obvious reasons). I will admit that some animal test do not bring about results but as a whole they do. What we do know is that not testing anything brings about no results.

By Garner Boogaerts (not verified) on 27 Jul 2012 #permalink

The central review criteria for animal research (at least where I'm at) is:
1) Is the question/research important?
2) Does the proposed experiment actually stand a very good chance of answering the questions?
3) Is there any alternative way to answer those questions?

If the proposal passes those, then the procedures are reviewed (and modified if needed) to minimize any potential suffering.

Animals are not used casually, and they are not used at all if there is an alternative.

caveat: Of course, there are shits in any field who violate the standards. No one approves of them.

So you acknowledge the pain and suffering caused by these barbaric experiments, but suggest it's all justifiable because of the Greater Good to humans. So let's just skip the kittens and start sewing human infant orphans' eyes shut. Or better, offer enticing financial rewards to poor parents who offer up their children for the greater good of Science. What better way to study the human brain's functioning than by experimenting on humans?

Those of us in research don’t see med school or premed programs as doing a particularly good job training people for scientific work at all.

Indeed, med students themselves don't. My sister is one (well, 2nd year, so I suppose that would be premed in the US), and she complains that there's so much interesting stuff she'd love to learn – but if she wants to pass the next superhuge test, she can't afford to learn anything that won't be on the test, because there's just not enough time to learn anything more than that!

PZ gets upset about the sick scum who encase a kitten in concrete,hang on,the person who did it might have a PHd in biology and it was for an abstract pursuit of knowledge so there is”nothing wrong with that”.

Read the post again. PZ does not say an abstract pursuit of knowledge justifies anything. He says the pursuit of clearly applicable knowledge, applicable to helping ill people, is justified.

is every academic paper checked first in case they don’t need to repeat this particular experiment as it’s already given the information needed?

Of course. That's part of the (unpaid) job description of both grant reviewers and manuscript reviewers.

Do you have any limits on what should be done?none?as long as an ethics review process has been followed then anything goes?

Do you understand the term "ethics review"?

no scientist in the world is a sexual sadist?really?when was this study conducted?how often is their mental health checked?.

Headdesk question mark full stop.

the need to get published(which let’s be honest is a strong motivator for some of these people)

Well, to different extents in different countries, your career depends on how often your publications are cited. Scientists are honest about it, and most don't like this system at all, because it prevents them from writing long descriptions or deep analyses and favors attention-getting "extended abstracts" that only take up 3 pages in a prestigious magazine.

But the men who were blinding kittens sixty years ago said the same. Apparently they did not manage to gain deep and useful knowledge about the plasticity of the brain, or they would have written it down and today’s kitten-blinders could just look it up and utilize it. Why are we supposed to assume that today’s experimenters will gain more useful knowledge? Because Science can’t fail to deliver whatever we want, sooner or later?

Because we can now look into brains in much, much, much more detail than was possible 60 years ago. That's why.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 02 Aug 2012 #permalink

Oh, the poll:
Yes 36.74%
No 63.26%

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 02 Aug 2012 #permalink