Cats and Research

Although cats represent less than 1 percent of the animals used in biomedical research each year, their contributions to various fields of medicine are numerous.  What follows are some examples of past medical advances and current research using cats.  


Researchers have found that cats infected with a feline virus may develop feline AIDS.  The feline virus and human AIDS are both retroviruses, which destroy the immune system's ability to fight the virus.  Both retrovirual infections possess similar symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes, extreme weight loss and infection of the gums and nose or respiratory system.  Researchers also have developed a vaccine that offers protections against feline leukemia virus in cats, and the technology used shows great potential as a model for human AIDS vaccine.1


Nobel-Prize winning research on cats revealed the pathways that send information from the eye to the brain.  This research showed that proper development of vision requires stimulation of the visual neurons and has given physicians a better understanding of eye disorders like amblyopia (“lazy eye”) and strabismus (“cross-eye”).2  Cats also have contributed to research on glaucoma and cataract surgery.3


Much is known about the anatomy of the cat’s sensory system.  Because of similarities between the neurological system of the cat and that of the humans, cats make excellent models for studying the spinal cord, vision and other types of research involving the nervous system.

  • Research with cats has furthered the understanding of the function of neurons, the chemical transmission of nerve impulses, specific functions of nerve cells, functional organization of the brain and mechanisms of nerve impulse transmission.
  • Cats are being used to measure how humans recover from traumatic injuries or strokes.
  • Cats may develop gangliosidosis, a lipid storage disorder that causes skeletal abnormalities and mental retardation in humans, and serve as an animal model for the disease.4


Both humans and cats can suffer from hearing loss as a result of exposure to high-level noise.  This similarity has enabled researcher to study the effects of noise on cats and apply the information to humans.
Another condition resulting from exposure to high-level noise is tinnitus, a chronic high-pitched ringing in the ear.  Although studies in cats have produced methods to suppress tinnitus, current research is aimed at curing the disease.5


Diabetic cats, though rare, are useful models for the study of human diabetes mellitus.  Better understanding of the protein that hinders insulin production in both cats and humans may lead to a cure for diabetes.6


Thousands of human infants are born in the U.S. every year with this disease, which is caused by a parasite that reproduces in the cat’s intestine.  Research is being done using cats to develop treatments and protective measures against the disease.7


Biomedical research has led to improved animal surgical procedures and new vaccines to prevent animal diseases.  Over the past 30 years, the health of the house cat has been improved to such a degree that their life expectancies have increased 6-8 years, allowing some indoor cats to live up to 20 years.


1 Shelton GH; Linenberger ML; Grank CK; Abkowitz JL Hematologic manifestations of feline immunodeficiency virus infection.  Feline Retrovirus Clinic, Pacific Northwest Research Foundaton, Seattle, WA. Blook 1990 Sept 15;76(6): 1104-9.

2 Friedlander, Michael J., Martin, Kevan A.C. and Wassenhove-McCarthy, Deborah: Effects of monocular visual deprivation on geniculocortical innervation of area 18 in cat.  J. Neurosci 11(10):3268-3288, 1991.

3 Galin, MA, Fetherolf, L, Suga, A: Binkhorst lecture 1 Experimental cataract surgery. Ophthalmology 86:213-218, 1979.

4 Baker, HJ: Animal models of human gangliocoses.  In: Andrews, Altman and Ward (eds.), Spontaneous Animal Models of Human Disease.  Academic Press, NY, 1980. Baker, HJ; Walkley, SU; Ratazzi, MC; Singer, HS; Watson, HL and Wood PA: Feline Gangliosidosis as models of human lysosomal storage diseases.  In: Animal Models of Inherited Metabolic Diseases, Alan Liss, NY, 1982.

5 Evabsm EF; Wilson, JP and Borerwe, TA: Animal models of tinnitus.  Ciba Found. Symp. 85-103-138, 1981.

6 Panciera DL; Tomas CB; Eicker SW; Atkins CE Epizootiologic patterns of diabetes mellitus in cats: 333 cases (1980-1986). J Am Vet Med Assoc 1990 Dec 1; 197(11); 1504-8.

7 Peterson JL; Willard MD; Lees GE; Lappin MR; and others Toxoplasmosis in two cats with inflammatory intestinal disease. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1991 Aug 15;199(4):473-6.