Is Our Behavior Unknowingly Affected by Cats?

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It turns out that cats have a somewhat dark reputation in neuroscience. There is research to suggest that a cat’s proximity to other mammals can cause them to behave strangely. This has been attributed to a protozoan that lives in cats’ stool, called Toxoplasma gondii (or Toxo for short).

In one case, researchers showed that Toxo can travel into a rat’s brain and cause the rat to no longer avoid areas where cats live. Previously repulsed by the smell of cat urine, the rats actually become attracted to it. The brain-infected rodents will run carelessly through urine-laden environments walking right into the cat’s trap.

These same protozoans can affect the brains of humans. People who are immuno-compromised can contract the infection from a litter box and develop dangerous brain abscesses. These patients are treated with powerful antibiotics and it is frequently recommended that they give away their cats. Pregnant women are also advised not to handle cat litter. Fetuses exposed to the protozoan can suffer from seizures, cognitive problems, and blindness.


But what about that person we all know, (and it may be yourself), the one who is not ill or pregnant and whose Instagram is covered with more pictures of feline friends than human companions, is she under the influence of this cat’s protozoan? Is our behavior unknowingly affected by our proximity to cats?

New research in the journal Psychological Medicine suggests that cat lovers are just fine. In a recent study, University College in London examined 6,705 adolescents and 4,676 young adults to see if early exposure to household felines contributed to the risk of developing psychotic episodes. The researchers showed that those exposed to cats were at no increased risk of psychosis after controlling for a number of other variables (including ethnicity, social class, and dog ownership – to control for exposure to animal stool). This was the largest and best-controlled study of this nature to date.

Lead author Francesca Solmi says, “previous studies reporting links between cat ownership and psychosis simply failed to adequately control for other possible explanations.” In other words, cat ownership doesn’t seem to truly increase one’s risk of psychosis.

A sigh of relief from cat people everywhere.


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