It’s a running joke that cats are really aliens bent on taking over the world and it turns out, the idea may not be so far off the mark. We’ve long known that cats play host to a parasite which can infect humans—this is why pregnant women are exempt from emptying the litter box. But while scientists thought that the parasite goes dormant once it infects humans, recent research shows that this isn’t the case at all. Not only does the beast not go dormant—it lives in your brain and exerts a sort of mind control.
Aliens have invaded your brain. For real
Toxoplasmosis gondii is a parasite that normally infects cats. It’s famous among scientists for its novel method of spreading itself from one cat to another—it hijacks rats and changes their behavior so that they’re more likely to get eaten.
That’s more than a little creepy.
Toxo leaves the host cat via cat feces. A rat comes in contact with it through contaminated dirt, food, or whatever, and gets infected..and that’s where it gets really spooky. Once Toxo infects the rat it makes its way to the brain, where it sets up a tiny chemical factory producing neurotransmitters that radically change the rat’s behavior.
The rat becomes fearless. It doesn’t avoid places where it’s likely to get eaten, but instead seeks them out. It also becomes more active, which makes it more likely to be noticed by predators. But most spookily of all, it loses its fear of cats and becomes attracted to the smell of cat pee, making sure it goes places cats will be. In short, the parasite changes it from a sneaky, quiet shadow-dweller who avoids cats like the plague into a tap-dancing performer who seeks out places that smell like cats and screams, “EAT ME!”
Ok, that IS creepy, but we’re not rats…right?
That’s ok. Toxoplasmosis also infects humans. We usually come into contact with it through litter boxes, contaminated water, or undercooked meat. Unless you’re pregnant, it doesn’t usually cause in obvious problems. For pregnant women it’s an issue; it can cause miscarriages, and if the unborn baby gets infected it can cause brain damage. It can also cause dementia in people with weakened immune systems, like those with end-stage AIDS. But till recently, scientists thought everyone else was safe.
Then along came Jaroslav Flegr.
Flegr is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Prague in Czechoslovakia. For years, he’s suspected that Toxoplasmosis might have more of an effect on humans than we give credit for. He believes it’s a factor in a lot of self-destructive behaviors, and that it contributes to car crashes, suicides, and even schizophrenia. And now he has the science to back that up.
His research, and that of several others in various parts of the world, shows that Toxoplasmosis has many of the same effects on us that it does on rats. It makes us fearless in situations where we should be afraid. It slows our reaction times down, so we’re less able to respond to threats—or to the car in front of us slamming on their brakes. In fact, he found that infected people were two-and-a-half times more likely to be in car accidents that those who without the parasite. The infected are also more likely to be clumsy and uncoordinated.
It also affects our personalities. Infected people are more likely to be plagued by guilt. They’re less likely to seek out new experiences. Infected men tend to be more introverted, suspicious, and indifferent to other people’s opinions. They’re more likely to break rules. For unknown reasons, they’re inclined to dress like slobs, in crumpled old clothes.
They are also, interestingly, less put off by the odor of cat pee than uninfected men.
Infected women, on the other hand, display just the opposite set of behaviors. They’re more likely to be outgoing, trusting, and rule-abiding than uninfected women. They also found infected men more attractive than uninfected men, and were extremely offended by the smell of cat pee. All these findings were bizarre, but not very useful. Nor are they the most shocking.
Your cat may be driving you crazy—literallyh3 Some of the most disturbing findings of the current research are psychiatric. Toxo infection is associated with higher rates of suicide, and it actually makes us experience some situations which should be frightening as sexually arousing instead. For rats, this means that the smell of cat pee goes from being frightening to being sexy. Humans are more complex than rats, and our fears are more complex, but the effect is much the same.
Research also strongly suggests that Toxo could trigger schizophrenia in susceptible people. Shrinkage in the cerebral cortex area of the brain is common in schizophrenics, and Flegr’s research shows that patients with this shrinkage invariably test positive for Toxo. This finding is backed up by research at the Imperial College of London. In fact, adding a common antipsychotic medicine for schizophrenia to a petri dish full of Toxo stopped it from growing. The link becomes even more likely when you consider that schizophrenia basically didn’t exist till the end of the 18th century—when people started keeping cats as pets.
So…does that mean I should get rid of my cat?
No. Indoor cats—cats who’ve lived the entirety of their lives indoors—don’t carry the parasite. And outdoor cats only shed it for three weeks out of their entire lives. This happens when they’re very young, usually when they’ve just begun hunting. And if you have an outdoor-outdoor cat, you may very well already be infected. Since there’s no cure, there’s not a lot you can do if you are.
The best defense, rather than avoiding cats, is to simply practice good kitchen hygiene. Make sure your counters and tables are wiped clean often, scrub your vegetables, cook your meat well, and avoid unpurified water. If you’re not a fan of well-done meat, freezing it before cooking will kill Toxoplasmosis. The most important thing is the same as it always has been—if you’re pregnant, stay away from the cat box, and wash your hands well after changing it even if you’re not.