Owning a Cat Does Not Cause Mental Illness, Study Finds

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Previous research suggested people who grow up with cats were more likely to become mentally ill because of the common parasite toxoplasma gondii.

Cats are carriers of an infectious parasite called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii).

"More than 60 million men, women, and children in the USA carry the Toxoplasma parasite, but very few have symptoms because the immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness", the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website. Infection with this parasite has been linked with the development of schizophrenia and symptoms of psychosis, such as hallucinations. However, they ultimately learned that these problems were actually caused by other factors than the animal.

Rather, Dr. Solmi argues, previous research reports failed to analyze the data properly and "adequately control for other possible explanations". The researchers behind this study wanted to know if contact with cats during childhood raised risk for mental illness. "However, some of the studies that have looked at this association had methodologically limitations".

The research, which was published in Psychological Medicine, focused on almost 5,000 people born in 1991 or 1992 who were followed up with until the age of 18. Although the study did not measure exposure to the cat hosted parasite directly, they were able to determine that owning cats does not "significantly increase exposure", which means that just because there is a cat in the household it does not necessarily mean one will develop psychotic symptoms over time.

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After controlling for potential confounding factors, the study concluded that cat ownership in pregnancy and childhood did not play a role in developing psychotic symptoms during adolescence.

Ultimately, the study found that there was no evidence that cat ownership during pregnancy or while growing up was linked with the onset of psychotic symptoms later in life.

Interestingly, this isn't the only recent study to shed light on the potential effects of cat ownership: Another study that came out a year ago in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology found that individuals infected with toxoplasmosis, caused by the cat parasite Toxoplasma gondii, "expressed higher attraction to bondage, violence, zoophilia, fetishism, and, in men, also to masochism".

Good News! Your cat isn't making you susceptible to mental illness, after all - if that was something you were concerned about. For this reason, pregnant women should follow the public health recommendation to avoid changing cat litter (because the parasite can be present in cat feces), the researchers said. The parasite "can lead to serious birth defects and other health problems in children", senior study author Dr. James Kirkbride said in the same statement.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) lists several occupations that may be at risk for contracting the parasite. "The cat next door will go to the bathroom in it", Torrey said, adding that he doesn't think families with children should own cats.