Cats and humans, most especially women, have had a somewhat tumultuous relationship throughout history. In ancient Egypt cats were worshiped. Then as time went on they were good luck. I’d consider that a bit of a demotion, but it’s better than what came next. In 1232, Pope Gregory IX began the association of cats with the devil. So, naturally, single women with cats were deemed witches. It’s gotten a little better since then, but what came out of it is who we now lovingly know as the Crazy Cat Lady. She’s a spinster, dowdy, with multiple cats and an odd temperament. Complete stereotype, right? Probably.
There has been a lot of press lately about a journal article from Schizophrenia Research that links a parasite (a protozoa to be exact) called Toxoplasma gondii with mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. To be fair, this research is not new. Studies of this sort have been happening for decades. How does this come around to cats? Toxoplasma considers cat excrement an ideal environment for replication. Yes, that means it loves living in cat poop. Its entire life cycle consists of being inside small mammals (though any mammal can be infected) that will be ingested by cats, who then digest the protozoa and rid themselves of it through their waste. Then the small mammals expose themselves to the waste and are infected. Begin cycle again. For a more entertaining explanation, please listen to this hilarious story from comedian Mike Birbiglia.
The cycle breaks when Toxoplasma does not end up in a small mammal, but a big mammal, namely humans. In the immunocompromised (children, elderly, anyone with an immunodeficiency illness or on immunosuppressants) an infection can develop. This is why pregnant women are not supposed to handle cat litter. The fetus can be infected and cause stillbirth or birth defects. A healthy immune system will deal with the infection and that will be the end of it, but it turns out there can also be lasting damage.
That’s where mental illness comes in. People who were tested for Toxoplasma antibodies were almost three times as likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. There is also an increased risk for schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder and addiction.
It seems to be early infections that cause the link. Basically, getting the infection as a child is what increases the risk of a mental illness. The protozoa lay low and become a latent infection. Those with the latent infections are the most likely to develop mental illness.
So, we have the Toxoplasma gondii and we know it can be found in cat excrement. Does this mean everyone needs to freak out and get rid of their cats? Are we all doomed to become crazy cat ladies?
No. Not even a little bit.
Infections are more likely to come from undercooked meat from infected animals, or from contaminated soil, water or food. Outdoor cats are more likely to carry the parasite than indoor cats, but only about 1% of cats are able to spread the disease at any given time. Chances are very slim that you’re going to catch Toxoplasma gondii, and even slimmer that you’ll develop a mental illness from it. We’re talking miniscule.
Want to take extra precautions against the disease? Do what you do for most anything else. Wash with soap and water, especially after exposing yourself to raw meat or possibly-contaminated soil. Rinse produce before you eat it. For Toxoplasma gondii specifically, clean the litter box daily and cover any sandboxes. It takes more than 24 hours to become infectious, so no freak-out is necessary.
What if you’re infected or think you’re infected? Talk to your doctor. Have a mental illness? Talk to your doctor.
I was curious about whether or not I have a latent infection, so I talked to my doctor. It turns out, I’ve never had toxoplasmosis. I am not a crazy cat lady. I cannot blame my childhood cat for my bipolar disorder. As my family would say, I come by it honest.