You love your cat, but she can really mess with your mind—according to the headlines this week, at least.
New research links growing up in a cat-owning household to mental illness, including schizophrenia, later on. The possible reason? No, not because of your kitty's at-times two-faced behavior or lack of eye contact, but due to a parasite that cats often carry called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii), which has been linked to the development of schizophrenia.
But really, you don't need to freak.
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The study, published in the June issue of Schizophrenia Research, replicates previous findings linking growing up around cats to an increased risk for mental illness. But the idea that your cat is a big risk factor is a "major misconception," the study's author and associate director of research at Stanley Medical Research Institute E. Fuller Torrey, MD, explained to Health. "It is a minor risk factor. For example, it increases chances of getting schizophrenia from 1:100 to 2-3:100."
In addition, you can't pick up T. gondii just by petting your cat. The most common way it transfers from cat to human is via handling feces and then accidentally ingesting the parasite (for example, you touch your face before washing your hands).
All that said, the parasite, which an estimated 60 million Americans carry, can make you sick, so it's best to take precaution where you can. T. gondii is responsible for an illness called toxoplasmosis, which can cause flu-like symptoms, eye damage, and miscarriage or fetal development disorders. (It's the reason pregnant women are advised against scooping the litter box.) For most people, upon infection the flu-like symptoms subside after a few weeks and only those with depressed immune systems develop serious problems; most carriers of the parasite have no idea they have it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Cats pick up the parasite in the first place from other infected rodents or birds by hunting outside or coming into contact with the feces of an infected cat, according to the ASPCA. If your cat doesn't hunt or go outside, this greatly reduces the chances she'll get it.
"Cats kept exclusively indoors are quite safe," Dr. Torrey adds. "For outdoor cats pregnant women should not change the litter box and children’s sandboxes should be covered at all times when not in use." If you can't keep kitty inside, the best advice is to clean the litter box daily, since the parasite is only infectious one to five days after being shed in cat poop. It's also a good idea to wear gloves and wash up afterwards.
Dr. Torrey also suggests using gloves when gardening as "cats use both gardens and sandboxes as bathrooms."
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