Does cat ownership cause mental illness?
(my apologies to any of our patients, and friends named Kat, or Katherine)
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As many of you might have heard, a recent study published in "Schizophrenia Research," found that a child diagnosed with schizophrenia or another serious mental illness later in life is more likely to have owned a cat in childhood.
Another study in the "Journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica," revealed that people infected with Toxoplasma Gondii, a parasite frequently carried by cats, were at a twofold increased likelihood of developing schizophrenia.
("AAP Smart briefs" June 9 2015,"cbs news")
We also know that pets including cats, dogs, and other animals have successfully been used as components of psychotherapy to treat mental illness and the benefits of pet ownership should not be readily dismissed.
Is it that Toxoplasma infection predisposes to mental illness, or that persons or families who have a predisposition to mental illness, are more likely to have owned a cat; the jury for all intents is still out.
Checking your cat's stool for Toxoplasma at your vet's office also is unlikely to be helpful as the illness in nonpregnant and non immunocompromised hosts is typically asymptomatic and lasts only several weeks.
(Toxoplasma infection during pregnancy may lead to birth defects.)
The CDC recommends the following precautions in cat owners who are pregnant or immunocompromised and perhaps we can extrapolate from that to our daily lives. Please note that Toxoplasma may also be contracted from other sources as well such as ingesting undercooked contaminated meats, and not washing our hands prior to eating. You can access the cdc site using the above link:
Ensure the cat litter box is changed daily. The Toxoplasma parasite does not become infectious until 1 to 5 days after it is shed in a cat's feces.
If you are pregnant or immunocompromised:
Avoid changing cat litter if possible. If no one else can perform the task, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands with soap and warm water afterwards.
Keep cats indoors.
Do not adopt or handle stray cats, especially kittens. Do not get a new cat while you are pregnant.
Feed cats only canned or dried commercial food or well-cooked table food, not raw or undercooked meats.
Keep your outdoor sandboxes covered.
Your veterinarian can answer any other questions you may have regarding your cat and risk for toxoplasmosis.
In all, this still leaves us with a somewhat muddy and confusing picture.
I do not recommend that you get rid of your pet cat. It would be though wise to keep him/her indoors, be careful what foods he/she eats, and consider the other CDC recommendations as well.
Having a pet as a child is a special experience for many children; we should not make any rash decisions to deprive our children of this special experience.
Feel free to contact me with any of your questions and any of your other pediatric needs.
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You can reach our office at (718)520-1070 for all of your pediatric needs.
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Howard Nass MD FAAP and staff
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