For many people in the United States, cats are a popular choice to have as household pets, but according to a new research, these furry felines could also pose a threat to their owner's health.
Scientists at the Stanley Medical Research Institute (SMRI) have discovered that a parasite found in most cats called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) has the potential to cause mental illnesses in humans including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
In their study, published in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin, SMRI researcher Dr. E. Fuller Torrey and Dr. Robert H. Yolken of the Stanley Laboratory of Developmental Neurovirology at Johns Hopkins University analyzed data collected from two previous studies regarding a possible connection between the development of schizophrenia and childhood cat ownership.
Their findings showed that exposure to cats in childhood could increase the likelihood of a person to develop mental disorders later in life.
"Cat ownership in childhood has now been reported in three studies to be significantly more common in families in which the child is later diagnosed with schizophrenia or another serious mental illness," the researchers stated in a press release issued with the study.
The results of the SMRI research support the findings of another study featured in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. This earlier paper cited that individuals infected with the T. gondii parasite are twice as much susceptible to develop schizophrenia.
The study was led by A.L. Sutterland from the Department of Psychiatry at the Academic Medical Centre in the Netherlands.
Transmission of the Toxoplasma Gondii Parasite
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Toxoplasma gondii parasite can be found thriving in most cat feces. These excrements contain oocysts that would eventually sporulate in the environment and become infectious in about one to five days.
Birds and rodents often become intermediate hosts to the parasite after they ingest soil, water or plant material polluted with the sporulated oocysts. The oocysts transform into tachyzoites that attach themselves to the host animal's neural and muscle tissues, eventually developing into tissue cyst bradyzoites.
Sporulated oocysts can also be ingested by wild game and animals bred for human consumption. The parasite can then be transferred to people by eating undercooked meat from infected animals or drinking water contaminated with cat feces.
The T. gondii can also be contracted by coming into direct contact with contaminated soil or cat litter.
Symptoms of Toxoplasma Gondii Infection
People with the T. gondii parasite do not often show symptoms of the infection, making early detection difficult.
The CDC estimated that around more than 60 million people living in the United States could potentially be carriers for the parasite without even knowing it.
While the parasite may not cause any adverse effects to most people, individuals with weaker immune systems can experience a condition called toxoplasmosis, which can cause flu-like illness, blindness, mental disorders, and in extreme cases, even death.
The illness can also cause pregnant women to suffer miscarriages and development disorders in their babies.
How to Avoid Toxoplasma Gondii Infection
To prevent the spread of the T. gondii parasite, Torrey recommends keeping pet cats indoors and keeping their sandbox covered when not in use.
The CDC, likewise, urges cat owners to clean their pet's litterbox daily so as not to allow the T. gondii to become infectious. They should also avoid feeding their cats with raw or undercooked meat.
Pregnant women should avoid cleaning the litterbox, if possible, or at least wear a pair of disposable gloves when handling it. They should also wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water after cleaning the litterbox.
Photo: Mark Vegas | Flickr