Scientists give cats the all-clear over mental health scare

Francis Osborne
February 23, 2017

Cats are host to a parasite called Toxoplasma Gondii. They remain in your body in an inactive state, providing you with lifelong immunity so that you can't become infected with the parasite again.

Solmi says, "Previous studies reporting links between cat ownership and psychosis simply failed to adequately control for other possible explanations".

You're probably aware of the stigma around "crazy cat ladies", and of stereotypes about lonely old women acquiring too many felines.

Dr. Solmi said that once they controlled the factors of their study, which includes socioeconomic status, as well as over-crowding of one's household, they found that cats were not to blame for the development of psychotic symptoms. That said, it's important to keep in mind that some mental disorders linked to the parasite - like schizophrenia - tend to be diagnosed fairly late in life, so only tracking until age 18 might limit the study. The researchers used birth information to determine whether households had cats when the mothers were pregnant and when the children were growing up.

The UCL study looked at almost 5,000 people born in 1991 or 1992, whose families were followed up until they reached the age of 18.

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It's clear that the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis infections in people, T. gondii, depends entirely on cats, because it reproduces only in cat intestines and is spread via feline feces. So some researchers hypothesize that owning cats in childhood increases the risk of developing mental illnesses, particularly schizophrenia, and a handful of studies have supported this idea. And there's "good evidence", the study's authors write, that T. gondii infections are associated with psychosis.

These limitations included studies in which researchers asked people with and without mental health problems to remember details about their childhood, which could have led to errors in recall. The new study was not able to measure T. Gondii exposure directly, but the results suggest that if the parasite does cause psychiatric problems then cat ownership does not significantly increase exposure. "Future research should therefore focus on better understanding the mechanisms by which these types of infection might lead to mental illness, and many researchers are now investigating this".

"Our study suggests that cat ownership during pregnancy or in early childhood does not pose a direct risk for later psychotic symptoms", said senior author James Kirkbride.

Still, those involved with the new research recommend that pregnant women do not handle soiled cat litter in case it contains the parasite in question.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) lists several occupations that may be at risk for contracting the parasite.

Other reports by TheDailyFarc

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