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Parasite found in cats could cause mental illness in owners

Ally Hirschlag is a producer/actor/writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY and buys way too many toys for her cats. She contributes to several publications, including Bustle, and The Nerve, and enjoys writing about all things woman. In her spar...

Schizophrenia has a new link to cat owners — what you should know

As a writer with a regular column called "Crazy Cat Lady," the news of a link between my favorite furry pets and mental illness was particularly troubling. According to a new study, a common parasite in cats called Toxoplasma gondii may cause a whole host of health problems.

What's more troubling is that this parasite — which is the most common in developing countries — may already be inside you. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, over 60 million Americans could potentially have it just by being in contact with cat feces.

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However, before you freak out and call your doctor, it's important to understand that most people who are infected never have any symptoms. The parasite only seems to affect people with weaker immune systems, but can cause flu-like symptoms, miscarriages, blindness and has even been linked to mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

E. Fuller Torrey and Dr. Robert H. Yolken of the Stanley institute at Johns Hopkins University have been studying the link between toxoplasmosis and mental illness going on three decades now. Their most recent study, which was published in Schizophrenia Research, shows people who developed schizophrenia later in life commonly grew up with cats. Another recent study that was published in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica found that an individual infected with the T. gondii parasite was twice as likely to develop schizophrenia in their lifetime. However, that being said, schizophrenia is exceptionally rare, so while "twice as likely" sounds bad, if you look at the overall risk, it's much less alarming.

So what's a cat lover to do? Well, the first thing is to become familiar with how it's transmitted to cats and then to people. Outdoor cats are much more likely to come in contact with and carry the parasite, so keeping your cat indoors will certainly help limit exposure. Since they're found in feces, cleaning your cat's litter box daily will significantly reduce the number of potential parasites. According to the CDC, they don't become infectious until one to five days after your cat's pooped, so the sooner you clean up after him, the better. It also helps to keep the box covered, especially if you have small children running around.

Since unborn babies are the most susceptible to toxoplasmosis, as they have underdeveloped immune systems, it's best for pregnant women not to clean litter boxes. Making my dad the regular box cleaner was one of the highlights of being pregnant for my mother. I also imagine having a self-cleaning litter box like the Cat Genie would greatly reduce the risk of infection, plus it's hilarious to watch a cat try it out for the first time.

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There's no reason this study should scare you off from getting a cat. The risks of contracting toxoplasmosis from your cat are so slim, in fact, according to a study conducted at Washington State University, you're far more likely to get it by eating undercooked meat. So think about that, and let those fluffy felines off the hook a bit. After all, they kill all those unwanted bugs around the house for you — I personally think that alone is worth the slight risk of going a little crazy.

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