Cats are polarizing creatures. The people that love cats often rightfully earn the title of “crazy cat person.” Their friends or family members don’t shy away from calling cats evil! Whether you love cats or absolutely hate them, you might get a kick out of the idea that there is a parasite that makes you love cats. This is real, although it might not work as you think.
What Is the Parasite That Makes You Love Cats?
Toxoplasma gondii is a one-celled parasite that is most often associated with cats. Humans, rats, and most other mammals are likely to come into contact with this parasite, too! You may have toxoplasma gondii floating around in your body right now.
Toxoplasma gondii, or “toxo,” may not convert a cat-hater to a crazy cat person. The parasite does, however, have the ability to warp your mind, potentially in a way that makes you absolutely love cats! This isn’t April Fool’s Day - science is just that wild sometimes!
How Many People Have the Parasite That Makes You Love Cats?
Ready for a shocking statistic? Studies suggest that around 11% of the United States population aged 6 or over have had toxo in their systems at some point. That’s 30 million people walking around with the parasite that makes you love cats!
Being infected with toxoplasma may lead to toxoplasmosis, or it will pass without causing any symptoms to the brain or body. So you might not know that you have this parasite. (If you’ve felt any unusual attachment to your furry friend lately…just kidding!)
That’s right. One in nine people have had this parasite in them. All mammals have the ability to get infected. For the most part, it’s harmless, which may be why scientists haven’t made sweeping efforts to eradicate the parasite. But the effects it does have are quite fascinating.
Toxoplasma gondii is happy to infect humans, rats, or other mammals. But their one goal is to get to your furry feline friends. Toxo may be present in 11% of humans, but it’s present in even more cats!
Toxoplasmosis and Cat Intestines
Why does toxo love cats so much? Well, they need cats to live! For whatever reason, toxoplasma can only multiply in the intestines of a cat. As they multiply, they produce oocysts. This is just one stage in the life cycle of toxo. Cats or people may have any of these three stages moving through their bodies.
How Do We Get Toxoplasmosis?
There are quite a few ways that people can become infected with toxoplasmosis. Cats don’t always have to be involved! Toxoplasma can enter the body when humans:
- Coming into contact with a cat’s feces (scooping poop)
- Accidentally ingesting anything after coming into contact with infected cat feces
- Accidentally ingesting food or soil that is contaminated with toxo (unwashed fruit and vegetables, raw meat, etc.)
- Drinking contaminated water
- Breastfeeding (if the mother has toxo)
- Drinking unpasteurized goat’s milk
- Accidentally coming into contact with utensils, cutting boards, etc. that contained toxo from uncooked food
Just being around cats or petting them will not lead to getting toxoplasmosis.
Preventing Toxoplasmosis Infection in Pregnant Women
Have you ever seen warnings on cat litter aimed at pregnant women? This is why! When you’re pregnant, your immune system is threatened. The symptoms of toxoplasmosis may be harmful to you and your baby. This is why pregnant women should not come into contact with cat litter. Sorry, spouses - you have to scoop for nine months!
Symptoms of Toxoplasmosis
Most likely, you won’t know if you’re infected with toxoplasmosis. This one-celled organism may disappear from your body without any noticeable symptoms. If you do interact with cats often or work in a kitchen where uncooked food is present, you should know the symptoms of toxoplasmosis. You might discover that your symptoms aren’t the flu, after all!
Physical Symptoms of Toxoplasmosis
Physical symptoms may vary. Existing health problems may also exacerbate the impacts of toxo. A typical, healthy person may experience “flu-like” symptoms for weeks at a time:
- Swollen lymph glands
- Muscle aches
People with an ocular disease may endure other symptoms:
- Eye pain
- Sensitivity to light (photophobia)
- Tearing of the eyes
- Blurred vision
People with compromised immune systems, including HIV, may also experience additional symptoms:
- Poor coordination.
Pregnant Women and Birth Defects
Fortunately, if a person has been infected with toxo before getting pregnant, they can develop immunity that passes onto the baby. If a pregnant person is infected with toxo while they are pregnant, the baby may experience symptoms. These symptoms include:
- Vision loss
- Hearing loss
- Microcephaly (very small head and brain)
- Hydrocephalus (too much fluid in the brain)
- Developmental delays
Mental Symptoms of Toxoplasmosis
The mental side effects of toxoplasmosis are actually pretty fascinating. Studies are still being conducted on how this plays out in humans, although the parasite could be linked to mental disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. What we do know is that its effect on rats explains how this parasite has been able to survive and spread for so long.
Here’s the theory that scientists have put together. (The exact science behind this process isn’t exactly known.) In certain stages of life, the toxo parasite can travel through a mammal’s white blood cells to the brain. There, it can cause some actually pleasant side effects - at least in cats. Higher levels of dopamine have been linked to infected rats. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, and it affects how mammals seek out certain rewards. This could be why rats are so jazzed up about being around a cat’s feces. (They love it!)
This is good for toxo, because when a rat is around cat litter, it’s inevitably around a cat. Infected rats may not be thinking straight. (Humans who have been in traffic accidents are three times more likely to be infected with toxoplasma. How wild is that?) These rats, with their lowered inhibitions, are more likely to fall into the trap of a hungry cat. The toxoplasma in the rat enters the body of the cat, and it can spread and survive in the cat’s intestines!
Interesting stuff, right? And it may explain why people suggest that the parasite makes you love cats. It can certainly make rats love cat litter!
How to Avoid Toxoplasmosis
Although many people can be infected with toxoplasmosis and experience no symptoms, it’s best to stay away from this parasite. People with compromised immune systems, and pregnant people should take extra steps to avoid it. Fortunately, best practices for avoiding toxoplasmosis are easy:
- Thoroughly wash hands after coming into contact with uncooked food
- Only drink filtered water
- Avoid unpasteurized milk, especially goat’s milk
- Immediately wash cutting boards or utensils that have come into contact with uncooked food
- Scoop litter or handle any mammal droppings while wearing a face mask
- Switch to litter made from pine pellets; clay litter dust can easily enter your lungs as you handle it
Remember, you do not have to have a cat or come into contact with a cat to get toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasma is very common, and you can get it from cooking or just drinking contaminated water. If you are dealing with these symptoms and can’t seem to find answers, you may have toxoplasmosis!