If you are like some of us, you probably can’t get enough of your cat, other people’s cats or any other cat for that matter. These feline companions have a majesty and grace about them, a calmness that cannot be found in other pets. Actually, if they were human, I think they would be Zen practitioners!
Crazy Cat Lady Syndrome
So for cat crazies like us, are we crazy for cats, or are we crazy because of cats? Well, let’s find out. It turns out that, the so-called ‘crazy cat lady syndrome’, which by the way does not exclude men, might have a scientific basis after all. If you are not familiar with this syndrome, think of it this way: it’s an irrational and overwhelming love for cats coupled with mental disorders and behavioral problems, sometimes to the point of affecting one’s other activities. It’s almost like an addiction, a cat addiction!
So, is there a possible explanation for this malady?
Yes! Some cats get infected with a type of parasitic protozoa called Toxoplasma gondii. This parasite then causes a condition called toxoplasmosis, or toxo, for short. Toxoplasmosis may then manifest in humans as well. Humans may get the infection by handling feces from an infected cat, such as when changing the litter box. In fact, it is estimated that 33% of the world population are infected including an estimated 60 million adults in the U.S.
The reason you may not know about toxoplasmosis is that it seldom shows signs and symptoms. The infection can however be devastating to the fetus, causing serious brain damage. This is why pregnant women are often advised not to change the litter box. HIV/AIDS patients and individuals undergoing chemotherapy are also at risk of severe symptoms on account of a suppressed immune system.
Toxoplasma gondii’s way of life’
Understand that this parasite’s mission in life is to live and reproduce in cat intestines! That’s where it undergoes sexual reproduction, that’s its home. Our feline companions then shed the ‘eggs’ (oocysts) in their feces upon which they may infect humans and other animals such as rats and mice. As far as the parasite is concerned, humans and rats are just intermediates, stepping stones for it to go back to the cats’ intestine.
Toxoplasma gondii’s ‘way of control’
Rats and Mice
So how does this parasite ‘ensure’ that humans and rats take it back ‘home’ to the cat? It has evolved, in its own right, an ingenious mechanism. It seeks out and infects the brain of its host. Studies in rats have shown that once infected, these rats begin to demonstrate peculiar behavior. They are placed under a ‘hypnotic spell’ that causes them to lose their natural instinct, the fear of cats. They then behave in ways that predispose them to be pounced upon. Of course, once the rat is in the cat’s jaws, the parasite finds its way into the cat’s intestines, thereby completing its life cycle.
Studies have demonstrated similar phenomena in humans. There is a known correlation between toxoplasma infection and schizophrenia. Not only that, other conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, and susceptibility to road traffic accidents. Well, the big question is: does the parasite influence human behavior in a similar manner to that seen in rats? Possibly, the crazy cat lady syndrome might well be such an instance. Although this correlation has not been studied empirically, it’s not difficult to imagine how this might occur, especially given the association with mental disorders.
Advice for Protection against toxoplasmosis
Before you start blaming our cute little cuddly companion, first realize that they are victims too! Secondly, you do not need to get rid of him/her because there are ways to minimize your chances of infection by the parasite:
- Avoid stray cats and keep cats indoors where they are less likely to feed on infected rats/mice.
- During pregnancy, avoid changing the litter box and or getting a ‘new’ cat.
- You may get your cat tested by a veterinarian if he/she has the infection.
- Clean your hands thoroughly after outdoor work as the parasite may also be found in soil/dirt.
So in conclusion, what do you think? Are we crazy for cats or are we crazy because of cats? I think it’s not a salient issue. The answer would not change how I perceive these lovely pets.
- Aguinaldo, J., 2015. George’s University http://mph.sgu.edu/mphblog/2015/10/08/the-role-of-infectious-diseases-in-mental-health-2/
- Muralikrishna P. et al., 2017. TOXOPLASMOSIS-THE PUBLIC HEALTH SIGNIFICANCE. International Journal of Science, Environment and Technology., 6(5), pp. 2752-2758.
- S Food and Drug Administration https://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/HealthEducators/ucm083327.htm