People have known about toxoplasmosis – aka Crazy Cat Lady Syndrome – for a long time. Yet it wasn’t until recently that a study has come out confirming what many had thought for years – the parasite often found if cat feces known as Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) does in fact raise one’s chances of developing mental illness.
But this is not an indictment of cats or even saying that you need to be worried about going crazy because you’ve shared residence with a cat. True, persons with toxoplasmosis are more inclined to develop schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, but that is a number pegged to the average rate of persons that have schizophrenia, which is roughly 1% of the global population over the age 18.
That 1% of people that have schizophrenia were also twice as likely to be infected with toxoplasmosis, leading to the correlation that toxoplasmosis could result in schizophrenia. However, knowing what we know about the high rate of persons infected (30-50% of the global population), developing a serious mental condition as a result is still in the overwhelming minority.
To put it simply, if you have schizophrenia there is a good chance you have toxoplasmosis, but just because you have toxoplasmosis doesn’t mean you’ll develop schizophrenia.
That does not, however, excuse you from reading up on the subject.
Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite that lives inside your cat and is capable of living in nearly any warm-blooded animal. As far as human go, this parasite is one of the most common, with an estimated 30-50% of the world’s population exposed and potentially infected. However, in many people that is where the story ends, as toxoplasma gondii can remain dormant. For these persons, the parasite may cause a brief bout of flu-like symptoms that eventually dissipate.
However, in persons with weakened immune systems, a condition known as toxoplasmosis can result from contact with the parasite. Persons with AIDS, pregnant, or anything else that lowers your immune defenses could experience an inflammation of the brain or other neurological diseases, and can also suffer problems with the heart, liver, ears, and eyes.
Beyond the physical maladies that result from the infection, there are also certain mental conditions believed to spring from this condition – schizophrenia, suicidal behavior, bipolar disorder, ADHD, OCD, and more. While scientist suspected this to be the case for a long time, a 30 year long study done at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine has concluded that there is, in fact, a clear correlation between living with cats as a child and the development of schizophrenia later in life.
“Cat ownership in childhood has now been reported in three studies to be significantly more common in families in which the child is later diagnosed with schizophrenia or another serious mental illness,” said E. Fuller Torrey and Dr. Robert H. Yolken regarding the results of their studies.
How You Get Toxoplasmosis
Even though it is the primary cause, people do not only get toxoplasmosis from cats. As stated above, this bacteria can be found in any warm blooded animal. Ways one can contract toxoplasmosis are:
- Eating raw or partially cooked meat – pork, lamb, venison especially
- Eating any unwashed food that has come in contact with cat feces
- Any hand-to-mouth contact with cat feces
- Congenital infection through the placenta
If you live with a cat, try to avoid coming into direct contact with their feces or litter (like we really needed to tell you that…). That means ensuring that your cats’ litter box is covered, and that you clean it out regularly. For people with weakened immune systems, such as pregnant women or persons with AIDS, the act of cleaning out the litter box should be relegated to someone less susceptible to infection. However, even if you are incredibly cautious, there is no guarantee that you will prevent the parasite from infecting you.