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Women who own cats are more likely to have mental health problems and commit suicide because they can be infected by a common parasite that can be caught from cat litter, a study has found.
Researchers found women infected with the Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) parasite, which is spread through contact with cat faeces or eating undercooked meat or unwashed vegetables, are at increased risk of attempting suicide. The study involved more than 45,000 women in Denmark. About a third of the world’s population is infected with the parasite, which hides in cells in the brain and muscles, often without producing symptoms.
The infection, which is called toxoplasmosis, has been linked to mental illness, such as schizophrenia, and changes in behaviour. The study’s senior author Doctor Teodor Postolache, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the United States, said: “We can’t say with certainty that T. gondii caused the women to try to kill themselves, but we did find a predictive association between the infection and suicide attempts later in life that warrants additional studies.
The T. gondii parasite thrives in the intestines of cats, and it is spread through oocysts passed in their faeces. All warm-blooded animals can become infected through ingestion of these oocysts. The organism spreads to their brain and muscles, hiding from the immune system within “cysts” inside cells. Humans can become infected by changing their infected cats’ litter boxes, eating unwashed vegetables, drinking water from a contaminated source, or more commonly, by eating undercooked or raw meat that is infested with cysts.
Dr Postolache noted limitations to the study, such as the inability to determine the cause of the suicidal behaviour. He added: “T. gondii infection is likely not a random event and it is conceivable that the results could be alternatively explained by people with psychiatric disturbances having a higher risk of becoming T. gondii infected prior to contact with the health system.”