The PJ Tatler

Dear Krazy Kat Ladies: Here's the New Book for You

Don’t take it from me, take it from author Harriet Washington:

In her new book, “Infectious Madness,” author Harriet A. Washington explains the surprising ways mental illness can be “caught.” You’ll never look at your household pet the same way again . . .

Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder went from being rare diseases to relatively common ones in the late 19th century, writes psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey. And during this period, he noted in his book, “The Invisible Plague: The Rise of Mental Illness from 1750 to the Present,” people also began showing cats more love.

Feline fanciers began keeping cats as pets, instead of banishing them to barns for rodent control, regarding them as Satan’s minions, and burning them to celebrate important holidays. When England’s first cat show was held at the Crystal Palace in 1871, cat ownership had become popular in America, and at the same time, scientists recorded a sharp rise in schizophrenia rates — except among rural Hutterites, who “almost never” keep cats as pets.

Incredible as it sounds, were cats to blame?

You can see where this is going…

According to much of the medical literature, yes, at least indirectly. University studies report that cats carry a zoonotic infection (one that humans can acquire from animals) that seems to cause schizophrenia.

That would be toxoplasma gondii, which I’ve written about here and here.

Torrey, executive director of the influential Stanley Medical Research Institute (SMRI), suspects Toxoplasma gondii, an infectious single-celled organism that lives in the tissues of many warm-blooded animals but whose survival depends on access to cats. It can reproduce only within the stomach of a cat or closely related felid.

Although T. gondii infection has subtler effects on healthy adults, it produces serious ailments in infants and children, whose immune defenses are immature. The parasite can not only kill outright but also causes a congenital syndrome that includes deafness, retinal damage, seizures and mental retardation. It also leads to toxoplasmosis, in which flu-like symptoms are followed by an inflammation of the brain, referred to as encephalitis, and various neurological deficits.

Because T. gondii is transmitted by cats, obstetricians have long warned pregnant women not to touch litter boxes and to cook food thoroughly in order to kill any errant parasites. Now, avoiding mental illness in unborn children provides yet another reason to follow these precautions.

For decades, Torrey, Yolken, and other scientists abroad, including Czech parasitologist Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University, have suspected that T. gondii caused subtle changes in an infected fetus that could lead to schizophrenia 20 years later. Later, in 2008, Yolken and Torrey published a study indicating that the peak age for becoming infected by T. gondii, between 18 and 35, coincides with the peak age of the first signs of schizophrenia. They also noted that in areas where felines are rare, the prevalence rates of both toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia are low.

Added bonus: if germs are the cause of mental illness, shrinks all over Manhattan and Los Angeles face looming unemployment. If it saves just one life… do it for the children. Remember, they all laughed when somebody first proposed banning smoking…