Owning a Cat Does Not Cause Mental Illness, Study Finds

Owning a Cat Does Not Cause Mental Illness, Study Finds

"Previous studies reporting links between cat ownership and psychosis simply failed to adequately control for other possible explanations", Solmi said in a university news release. While "cat ownership in pregnancy was associated with higher odds of [psychotic experiences] at age 13 years in all models, as was cat ownership at age 4 years", the study's authors note, once they factored in other variables, the cats were off the hook. So some researchers hypothesize that owning cats in childhood increases the risk of developing mental illnesses, particularly schizophrenia, and a handful of studies have supported this idea.

So are cats bad for your mental health?

"Even if we are suggesting that you get it at, say, age 4 when you're playing in a sandbox, you don't have to own a sandbox to have a cat go to the bathroom in it".

Scientists once believed that the parasite found in cat feces, Toxoplasma gondii, caused people to develop schizophrenia, psychosis, and mental disorders.

Cats carry an infectious parasite called T. gondii.

While the new study looked at a larger population of cat owners, previous studies were not almost as thorough. "By itself, household crowding is a risk factor that has been associated with schizophrenia, and if the crowding leads to greater contact with the household cats, then adjusting for household crowding statistically may eliminate the legitimate association between cat exposure and, in this case, unusual thoughts", said Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, an associate director of research at the Stanley Medical Institute who has also conducted research in cat ownership and toxoplasmosis.

A team of epidemiologists from the University College London set out to test that theory by analyzing data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), which followed children born in 1991 and 1992 until they were 18 years old. At ages 13 and 18 years, the children were brought into clinics to be evaluated for psychotic-like symptoms.

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Her fellow author Dr James Kirkbride, of UCL's psychiatry department, added: "Our study suggests cat ownership during pregnancy or in early childhood does not pose a direct risk for later psychotic symptoms".

So are cats bad for your mental health?

"The scientific problem with every one of these studies is that the populations studied are too small to gain meaningful insights", Dartmouth College microbiology and immunology professor David J. Bzik told Brain Decoder.

That said, separate evidence that suggests parasite exposure can lead to general health problems in children hold up.

"More than 60 million men, women, and children in the USA carry the Toxoplasma parasite, but very few have symptoms because the immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness", the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website.

Toxoplasma gondii is a single-celled parasitic organism that can infect most animals and birds. They remain in your body in an inactive state, providing you with lifelong immunity so that you can't become infected with the parasite again. Once cats are infected, they are able to shed the parasite for two weeks afterwards.

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