Toxoplasmosis: What is the Crazy Cat Lady Syndrome?

toxoplasmosisAs it turns out, that crazy cat lady – and we all know one; you probably got cat hair on your candy apple when you went trick-or-treating at her house – doesn’t have about a gazillion cats because she’s crazy. In fact, it may be the other way around; she’s crazy because she has about a gazillion cats. A parasite called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) – or “cat poop parasite” – can cause a disease called toxoplasmosis, which in turn can lead to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. You’ve heard of people going bats*** insane, right? Well, toxoplasmosis can make you literally cats*** insane. T. gondii can infect all warm-blooded animals, but cats are the only hosts within which it can sexually reproduce to complete and begin its lifecycle – no word on whether a brick to the head thrown by a mouse can make a Krazy Kat, though.

“Two previous studies suggested that childhood cat ownership is a possible risk factor for later developing schizophrenia or other serious mental illness,” researchers E. Fuller Torrey of the Stanley Medical Research Institute and Dr. Robert H. Yolken of Stanley Laboratory of Developmental Neurovirology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine write in a study published recently in Schizophrenia Research. “We therefore used an earlier, large NAMI questionnaire to try and replicate this finding. The results were the same, suggesting that cat ownership in childhood is significantly more common in families in which the child later becomes seriously mentally ill. If true, an explanatory mechanism may be Toxoplasma gondii.” Hopefully Bruce Wayne will use this knowledge to diagnose and treat Selyna Kyle and finally extricate her from a life of crime.

Toxoplasma T. gondii – not related to Mohandas K. Ghandi – is the most common parasite in developed countries, and the CDC’s calculation is that over 60 million Americans have it. However, most of these individuals do not experience any symptoms, save for those with a weakened immune system. According to the Humane Society, there are 75-80 million pet cats, plus a further 30-40 million stray or feral cats prowling the U.S. (Bart: I could've trained them to be my unholy army of the night. Go, my pretties! Kill! Kill!). The study authors have researched the T. gondii/schizophrenia link for over 30 years, including a 1982 unpublished mental health survey – a decade before any cat ownership and mental illness research had even been published. “In schizophrenia, the evidence of an association with T. gondii is overwhelming,” the authors said. “These findings may give further clues about how T. gondii infection can possibly [alter] the risk of specific psychiatric disorders.”

Toxoplasmosis is particularly dangerous to unborn babies, so pregnant women are recommended not to clean litter boxes – also known as Stimpy’s “first material possession” –, and if they do, wear disposable gloves and wash hands meticulously with water and soap afterward. Additionally, “children can be protected by keeping their cat exclusively indoors and always covering the sandbox when not in use,” Torrey told CBS News. Finally, the CDC advises to change a cat’s litter box every day. Cats shed millions of T. gondii-infected eggs in their feces, and though the parasite can linger in soil or water for years, it is only infectious 1 to 5 days after it has been excreted.


Cats and Birds for People with Dementia