Can cats make you crazy?
Parasite may be factor in mental illness
By Tamara Ikenberg
Cats: fluffy puffy friends, or instigators of mental illness?
Q: According to a study by Stanford University researchers called "Parasite Hijacks Brain With Surgical Precision" published April 2 in New Scientist and the new book "Survival of the Sickest" (Morrow, 267 pp., $25.95), by neurogeneticist Sharon Moalem, they could be both. The scientists theorize about toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that can reproduce only in cats and has the power to trigger schizophrenia and other particular behaviors in humans.
We talked to Moalem about this new insight that could make "the crazy cat lady" more than a myth.
Q: Cats have long been suspected of being in league with witches and dark powers. Could there be a connection?
A: There could be. People could've noticed that those who tended to have a lot of cats tended to be strange. There may be something to that old mythology of the crazy cat lady now that we know there's some kind of weird mind control going on.
Q: How does the parasite get to the cat?
A: It changes the behavior of mice and rats. It controls the mouse or rat's behavior to such surgical precision that they just lose their fear of cats, cat urine or cat smell. The parasite literally turns them into cat food. In a weird way, it saves them for the cat. It really doesn't do anything to the cat. It's almost to the cat's benefit to have the parasite. It gets them food. That's really why you shouldn't let your cats out.
Q: Why can T. gondii only reproduce in cats?
A: It's just one of those quirks of nature. It's called co-evolution; one evolved with the other. How it arose? No one has any clue. It needs the cat to do its sexual reproduction. It's just so freaky. It makes an animal lose a fear of only one other animal, and that's the animal it's trying to get to.
Q: How does it get from a cat to a human?
A: The eggs that come out that can infect you are shed in cat excrement. So it's because of the litter box. It'll stick to cat litter; so if the cat drags it out and you ingest it by accident, you can get infected.
I have three cats and am already plenty strange. But I don't let them out.
That's fine. As long as they've never had access to mice.
They're all rescued.
Then most likely they could be carrying the parasites. … If you're exposed to that parasite when you're young, like in the first few years of your life, that may be the worst time to be infected by it. That's when your mind is being formed; structurally it's kind of being put down. The first few years of childhood are so crucial. I find it funny: Parents spend so much time, money and effort to make sure their kids get the best education, not realizing that the cat they have can put them at risk for schizophrenia. Parents buy a good car seat, they drive a Volvo, but the cat could be causing problems. … Pregnant women should not be emptying litter boxes. If you get an infection with this parasite when you're pregnant, it's bad news. You can lose the baby.
Q: What other curious behaviors does T. gondii trigger?
A: Women infected with this parasite tend to be hypersexual; they have more partners. The men (with the parasite) tend to be more withdrawn and pick more fights. With women, there also seems to be an obsession with shopping and appearance; a change in behavior. From a host-parasite relationship, it makes total sense, especially if you think of something as accepted as rabies. It makes animals more aggressive. That's just a simple virus, and look at that behavioral control it's doing. T. gondii is much more complicated than a simple virus.
This all makes me think of Don Konkey on the F/X series "Dirt," the schizophrenic photographer who adores his cats so much he made a shrine for a recently deceased furry friend.
It fits so well. What's interesting and we should remember, too, is (that) it's not a cause of schizophrenia, it's just another risk factor that could push you (over the edge). You have some underlying things that are going on, and if a parasite is manipulating and changing your brain structure anyway, that's what happened.
I am afraid these findings will make people hate kitties.
I think there's enough anti-cat sentiment. It's just not cats. Cats do get the bad rap because that's where they (the parasites) go to reproduce. You can also get this parasite from undercooked meats. There should be a movement to try to make a vaccine or try to get cats free from this parasite completely. It's something that's preventable. Tapeworm used to be in every single pig you'd buy and eat. We've made changes to get that not to happen anymore.
Q: Will any of these findings eventually benefit cats, mice or people?
A: It lends more strength to the idea that if something affects the behavior of a mammal with such surgical precision, there's likely an effect on us. There's work under way to give people with schizophrenia drugs against T. gondii and see if that treats schizophrenia.
Reporter Tamara Ikenberg can be reached at (502) 582-4174.