The symptoms of crazy cat people have recently been blamed on a parasite that makes its home in the fur of household cats. Toxoplasma gondii, many scientists speculate, is responsible for giving cat owners psychological disorders. A new study, however, offers cat lovers their long-awaited vindication: The results of a survey spanning 10,000 people provides compelling evidence that cats aren’t making anyone mentally ill.
After two decades of extensive research, the researchers show that there’s no link between cat ownership and schizophrenia — or any mental illness, for that matter. Their study, published in the journal Psychological Medicine, offers much more reliable evidence than previous papers showing the opposite because it followed children from the time they were born to the age of full maturity, assessing their symptoms over time. Most of the other studies carried out in this field had a small sample size, looked only at patients who were already diagnosed with schizophrenia, or both.
In this study, researchers from the University College London studied over 10,000 children from the time they were born to the time they were 18. They took into account several conditions, including the education, age, and occupation of the mother; the number of times the family moved while the children were aged zero to four; and what other animals the family had in addition to a cat. Summing up the paper’s findings in a statement, lead author Francesca Solmi, Ph.D., said: “The message for cat owners is clear: there is no evidence that cats pose a risk to children’s mental health.”
As far back as 1995, scientists have been gathering evidence to show that Toxoplasma gondii causes schizophrenia and bipolar disorder by modifying the chemical responses of the brain. By forming a cyst in the brain that emits an enzyme called tyrosine hydroxylase, the parasite causes the overproduction of dopamine — the hormone responsible for mood, sleep, and focus. One surefire symptom of schizophrenia is having high dopamine levels.
Previous studies showed that children risk exposure to the parasite from a family cat between the time they’re born and the age of four — which can then lead to mental illness later in life. But, despite the fact that cats can carry the parasite and it can be found in their poop, the new study has unexpectedly found that the likelihood of a child developing schizophrenia because of an infected cat in the house is slim to none.
The outcome of the study doesn’t mean that Toxo, as it’s known to researchers in the field, isn’t dangerous to mental health at all; rather, it suggests that if it does cause psychiatric problems, they’re not likely to be exacerbated by the presence of a household cat during early childhood.
Though the study suggests pregnant women should probably still stay away from cat poop, it’s safe to say your furry friend isn’t going to cause you any harm, aside from maybe dying of cuteness overload.