When a beloved cat gets a kidney transplant, where does the donor kidney come from?

There are people out there who argue that spending $15K on a pet cat’s kidney transplant — or any pet’s surgical procedure — is morally questionable when society still has so many human beings living in abject poverty and hunger without a place to live.

That is just one of the quandaries presented by Sarah Zhang’s Atlantic article about pet health care costs. It uses cat kidney transplants as a stepping-off point, no doubt because there is a considerably more ethically messy thing about cat kidney transplants that had not crossed my mind before: the way vets get the donor kidneys from otherwise healthy cats:

In the oncology department at [U-Georgia vet school], when pets finish chemotherapy, the staff have a tradition adopted from human cancer wards of ringing a celebratory bell. Back in the ’60s, Weigner points out, your cat wouldn’t have gotten chemo. It probably wouldn’t even have been diagnosed with cancer. More likely, a sick cat would just go off by itself and die. But an owner nowadays can bring their cat in for biopsies, X-rays, and ultrasounds—followed by chemo, radiation, and immunotherapy. The list of options is long, the sums of money to spend very large. You can go to great lengths to treat an ailing pet, even if how far you should go isn’t always so easy to answer.

But among all of these treatments, cat kidney transplantation poses a unique ethical dilemma. The kidney has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere—or do we say someone?—is another cat.

Even among cat people, kidney transplants are controversial. One owner told me she was called a “kidney stealer” by fellow cat owners in a Facebook group for those with pets suffering from chronic kidney disease. In the U.K., the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons has explicitly come out against using living donor cats in transplants, arguing that the surgery inflicts pain and discomfort on an animal that derives no benefit. A cat, after all, cannot consent to giving away a kidney.

To be clear, the donor cats are not killed. Like humans, cats can survive with one kidney. When Clare Gregory and his colleagues at UC Davis pioneered cat kidney transplants in the late ’80s, he made sure that owners adopted the donor—a policy that all three hospitals performing cat kidney transplants in the U.S. continue to uphold. No other types of organ transplants are done in cats, because they would involve killing the donor, which the vets and ethicists I talked with universally condemned. (Gregory tried doing kidney transplants in dogs first, but the canine immune system is unusually reactive, leading to kidney rejection.)

Strawberry’s donor was a one-year-old male tabby with a white chin. He was already up and about the morning after his surgery, keen to receive chin rubs; the young and healthy donor cats tend to bounce back faster than the older and sicker recipient cats. He’d be ready to go home with Strawberry’s owner in a matter of days.

As the article notes, it gets even ethically messier because the source of the donor cats is usually one of any number of companies, some of whose stock is traded on Wall Street, who provide lab animals (dogs, cats, mice, rats, etc.) to universities.

So a donor cat has, in one very narrow sense, gotten a golden ticket of sorts. Instead of spending life in a cage in a lab being injected with who-knows-what for its entire miserable life, kidney donor cats usually go on to lead normal lives in loving homes.

But I added the part about Wall Street for a reason.

As history has shown us, these publicly-traded companies will often try to get away with whatever they think they can get away with in terms of shoddy animal care standards, much to the detriment of the animals they breed in often horrific conditions. There are good reasons these companies often place their animal breeding facilities in conservative states with lax animal rights laws.

It will probably be a good day for humanity’s trajectory toward a higher level of civilization when (if?) we reach a point where it’s a settled question that since cats cannot give informed consent, they cannot be used as organ donors.

Commercial animal breeding facilities often keep animals in deplorable conditions.

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