Spaced Out? Reckless? Might Be the Cat’s Fault

life cycle of Toxoplasma gondii
life cycle of Toxoplasma gondii (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve shared before the accounts of parasites in ants making them do bizarre, self-destructive behavior that serves to the advantage of the parasite. But I admit I never considered that such behavioral influence was possible by parasites in higher creatures.

Toxoplasma gondii, is the cat-box parasite many expectant mothers are aware of. As I recently discovered, it turns out that it is not just of human concern because of its potential impact on pregnancy.

Toward the parasite’s survival, it’s presence in cysts in the brain alters cat-feces eating mouse behavior (what attracts them (cats) and their fear reactions: cats are cool!) such that the males especially become more likely to be eaten by cats, and thus perpetuate the parasite into still more cat feces.

This is great for cats, and perfect for Toxo. It’s not so good for the mice. And it turns out, after years of smoking gun suspicion, that this same parasite has, if not intentional, then at least significant and alarming collateral-damage affects on the half-billion infected humans, some more than others.

It’s a long article from the Atlantic (How Your Cat is Making You Crazy), quite suitable for reading in Instapaper on the iPad on an airplane, but only one of you Fragments readers will click the link and read every word.

So in summary for browsing butterflies before you flit away:

▶  the parasite may be implicated in reduced reaction times and thus, in auto accidents.

â–¶ It effects those from Mars differently than those from Venus (which is very interesting in itself) making men more withdrawn and women more gregarious.

▶ And it may be implicated as an “environmental releaser” in mental disorders including schizophrenia.

The good news is that cat owners can (AND SHOULD!) take the necessary precautions. I encourage anyone who lives with cats (especially those who free-range and then come indoors to the cat box) to read this article.

There are practical take-homes, but the science itself is fascinating for an old biology-watcher like me.  And if you’ll read the “related article” you’ll discover there are other forms of aggregate human behavior equally as bizarre and self-destructive, called Super-PACs.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I read that article a while ago and spent a loooong time wondering if I’d been infected by that little gem. We haven’t had cats much in my life, but we did have that one outdoor cat, at the age when we had a sandbox to play in, so I suspect I’m a T. gondii zombie too. (Though I am not terribly gregarious in person, so who knows? Maybe without a parasite I’d be a complete hermit.)