Among the things women are warned about during pregnancy (avoid smoking and alcohol, to name a couple), cleaning a cat’s litter box seems to always fall at the top of this list. That’s because, much like smoking and alcohol, a cat’s litter could contain something that is hazardous to infants in the womb; a parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii (toxo). Should a pregnant mom-to-be inhale, or accidently eat this parasite, she would become infected, and there is a strong chance that her baby would too; causing serious health implications for both mom and child.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the litter of our furry (and curious) little friends, pregnant moms aren’t only advised to stay away; as individuals with compromised immune systems, such as people undergoing chemotherapy or with HIV, seem higher-risk victims as well.
But should anyone else be worried?
As toxo could affect the neurological system, a study recently revealed that approximately 10% to 15% of Americans might be infected with the parasite, as toxo lays dormant in a person’s system. In fact, once an individual is infected, it can lie in someone’s body, inactive, for the rest of their life.
While many have viewed toxoplasma as no real risk (other than to the groups above), recent studies have linked the infection to schizophrenia. In fact, a 2007 review revealed that those with schizophrenia were almost to three time likelier to be infected by the parasite, than mentally healthy individuals. In fact, a study conducted by Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, Stanley Medical Research Institute (a not-for profit supporting research on disorder), and his team, revealed that adults with the mental health illness were likelier to have had cats in the house as children.
CNN advises that Torrey goes on to note that it also seems that toxo has also been connected to suicidal and aggressive behavior; with a recent study revealing that those with a disorder known as impulse-control (and is tied to sudden aggression), were likelier to have been infected by toxo. Toxo infections have also been prevalent in those who have attempted suicide within the U.S., Turkey, Mexico, as well as Europe.
Still, William Sullivan, Indiana University School of Medicine, notes that while research has suggested that those with these mental health disorders may have had an increased chance of being exposed to these parasites via cats, a correlation plus a correlation does not equal cause. More research may be needed to find an unknown risk factor. In addition, Sullivan states that eating red meat, and working with soil (i.e. gardening) are also other ways to become infected with toxo; so no need to place all the blame on kitties when it comes to this infection. It’s also important note, only 1% of cats shed these parasites.