Thursday, March 1, 2012

Cats and parasites behaving badly


Foolishly, I thought everyone already knew that their cats were controlling their minds. I don't mean just with their demanding mews - you do know that cats use a special vocalization that's acoustically similar to a baby's cry, a sound that we've basically evolved to be unable to resist?

You would know that if you'd read the Animals Behaving Badly book. And you'd also know about their even more sinister method: they carry a parasite that changes your personality.

This is not news. You also could have read about it, for example, on Ed Yong's blog way back in 2008. But a new article in The Atlantic called "How Your Cat is Making You Crazy" is getting so much attention that people have clearly missed earlier coverage.

Given that so many cats have infiltrated human homes, this is an issue of major importance, and obviously I've neglected it on this blog for far too long. You've may have heard of toxoplasmosis as a disease that is carried by cats, probably in the context of warnings that pregnant women shouldn't clean the litter box. But these warnings don't go into detail about the effects that this disease may have on us. As I explain it in the book:
The parasite toxoplasma, when it infects a rat, overwhelms its fear of cats and makes it actually feel attracted to them, with predictable results for the rodent. (It then infects the cat, which is where it really wants to live.) Humans infected with toxo also show mental changes: they have an increased risk of traffic accidents, and there’s a correlation with schizophrenia. But the most frightening possibility: If it makes rats attracted to cats, does it do the same to people?

So, you think you like your cat because it's cute and warm and furry. But just maybe you like your cat because an alien that lives in your brain is telling you to and you're powerless to resist. It would explain a lot, don't you think?



Sinister kitty by Flickr user cloned milkmen.

3 comments:

  1. I heard about toxo a few years ago on NPR. It has haunted my mind ever since. I've never had a cat because litter boxes are SO DISGUSTING. "Hey there kitty, please walk all over your own feces and then jump up on my kitchen stove and shed and track crap all over the place." No thanks.

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  2. I have had cats all my adult life and yet, I cannot disagree.

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  3. Don't worry, Sarah, they are supposed to bury the poo if they're a good kitty. So as long as you scoop out the litterbox regularly (I did it every day, without fail, when I had my 2 kitties) then you can still maintain a relatively clean household.

    The other thing is that as long as your felines are indoor-only, their chances of getting toxoplasmosis are HUGELY reduced. They're just not going to pick it up unless you have mice or something. It's when you have an indoor-outdoor cat (or a mice/rat problem) that the cats are at risk for toxo.

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