Is Cat Poop Really Linked To Mental Illness?

The Internet loves cats, but earlier this summer, we learned that there migt be a downside to keeping a feline companion around: A parasite in cat poop has been linked to schizophrenia. But why? Why does cat poop cause mental illness? WIRED's Big Questions web series took on that question in their latest episode, so here's why you'll want to keep those litter boxes far away and out of sight — beyond, y'know, the obvious (because smelly litter boxes are no fun for anyone).

Of course, this isn't the first time humans have investigated cats-to-people communicable diseases; previous studies have found that cats can give you roundworms, campylobacter, salmonella, and bartonella. These ailments might cause a variety of symptoms, which include but are not limited to painful lymph nodes, fever, headaches, fatigue, joint pain, weight loss, diarrhea, vomit, bloody stools, scratching... you get the idea. The diseases are either parasitic infestations or bacterial infections, and don't typically affect healthy humans, but when they do they're usually administered via scratch or bite — and sometimes, fecal matter.

In the case of schizophrenia, though, we're looking at the bacteria toxoplasma gondii, a single-celled parasite commonly found in the United States. It's responsible for the infection called toxoplasmosis, which can be transmitted by eating undercooked, contaminated meat, drinking contaminated water and — you guessed it — swallowing kitten poop (and before you ask, yes, it's possible to accidentally ingest cat poop while you're cleaning Fluffy's litter box). The disease has been shown cause flu-like symptoms at best and brain damage at worst.

Here are three things you should know about the cat poop/mental illness connection; scroll down to watch the full video.

1. Exposure to toxoplasma gondii at a young age can cause mental illness.

This could happen when a child ingests cat feces by cleaning a litter box, touching anything that has come in contact with the feces, or ingesting contaminated soil (for example, if the child eats something growing in a garden where an infected cat has pooped).

2. Surveys confirm that the parasite may be linked to schizophrenia.

Researchers have found that people with schizophrenia were 10 times as likely to be exposed to cats as children than people without.

3. That's a pretty significant number... but it's not conclusive.

This doesn't mean that all cases of schizophrenia are caused by toxoplasmosis, that all mental illness is caused by cat poop, or that the correlation found in this research necessarily implies causation. But it does raise an important question about the relationship between bacterial infections and mental illness, which could help us more more deeply understand things like bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia — all illnesses of which we don't necessarily know the cause.

Worried about your furry feline friend now? Have no fear! You can easily get your cat tested for toxoplasmosis if you haven't already (something which might be particularly crucial if you have a small child0. That way you don't have to get rid of your cat or your baby, and no one gets an infection. Yay, science!

Images: Pexels; Wired/YouTube (3)