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How your cat could be making you neurotic (... but probably isn't)

June 10, 2009 |  2:56 pm

Garfield From science fiction or real life, you may be familiar with the manipulative powers of parasites. Invasive fungus that provokes ants to climb atop plants before dying, where it can continue growing. Rabies causes dogs to salivate and become aggressive, increasing the chance that they'll bite and spread the disease.

And Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that actually draws rats to their predators -- cats. Manipulation is afoot here, too. Cats are the definitive hosts of this parasite, which can inhabit their brains after they kill a rat. From there, the parasite can spread to other mammals, including humans.

Researcher Kevin Lafferty proposed that T. gondii, discovered in 1908 and transmitted to roughly half of Earth's population, may be manipulating human behavior.

Characteristics of people carrying the parasite? In a Turkish study, drivers were two to four times as likely to get in car accidents if they tested positive for the bug. (Sound familiar, rats?) A study in the Czech Republic showed a sharp difference between male and female carriers. Males tended to have lower IQs, shorter attention spans, a greater likelihood of taking risks, and were more independent, antisocial and morose. Women, on the other hand, were more outgoing, friendly and promiscuous.

Overall, carriers were more likely to feel guilty (a characteristic of neurosis), and one study linked the parasite to schizophrenia.

There aren't many of these carrier studies, but there is a wealth of science on how people catch the parasite. Cat owners, do not fret: While some identify cat ownership as a slight risk, others do not. Eating undercooked meat or unwashed vegetables and handling soil are consistently more prominent factors. (Pregnant women, however, should ignore any cravings for raw meat or dirt, as the fetus can be especially at risk.)

But take another look at Garfield comics, and you may think again about whether a pet cat poses a risk. Garfield Minus Garfield cuts the cat out of the strip, exposing a strange Jon Arbuckle with schizophrenic tendencies.

-- Clare Abreu

Photo credit: Los Angeles Times / © 1994 PAWS Inc.

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