If it makes you feel any better, this week it’s my turn to freak out. That’s because I've learned that a strange parasite is trying to get cozy with our cats. And the bug might be capable of affecting human behavior.
I discovered this odd bit of news when I spoke to my daughter, who is doing some research into the Toxoplasma parasite. Toxoplasma is excreted by cats. The parasite can be found in cat litter. (It’s the reason why women shouldn’t clean the cat box while they’re pregnant.)
It turns out that in most infected people, the Toxoplasma parasite is fairly benign. Which is a good thing, because up to half the people on the planet carry the parasite’s tiny cysts in their brain (ugh). But Toxoplasma causes birth defects in fetuses, and I’ve also heard that it can cause blindness if the parasite migrates to your eye (so much for being benign).
Cats are the natural hosts for the parasite, which gets very crafty in its attempts to reach a feline. Research has shown that when a rat is infected with Toxoplasma, the rat’s brain is altered so that the rodent loses its fear of cats. The infected rat becomes much more likely to get eaten by a cat, and then—voila!—the parasite has reached its target host.
Some research I read about suggests that even human behavior can be affected by the Toxoplasma parasite.
A parasitologist (who knew such a field existed?) once reported that women who are infected with Toxoplasma tend to be more extroverted and caring—to what end, is not known. My personal theory is that perhaps the parasite is trying to make us take better care of its feline hosts.
I’m freaking out about the possibility that the bug might affect human behavior, because everyone in my family loves cats.
As a clan, we like dogs just fine. But we’re nuts about cats. For example, I have an aunt who has nine indoor kitties. She also feeds and takes care of dozens of feral cats.
My sister is another fierce protector of all things feline. She has appointed me executor of her estate on behalf of her two cats. I have precise instructions for where and how they’ll be cared for if they outlive her (her will even includes funding for a long-term kitty haven).
Then there’s me. My husband calls me a “cat whisperer.” When I see or hear a cat on the street, I’m magnetically drawn to it. I’m strangely drawn to it, I’m thinking now.
Our familial tendency to adore cats and care for them makes me wonder—could it be that we’re all infected with the Toxoplasma parasite, and we’ve been passing the bug down through the generations? Maybe the parasite has altered our brains to make sure that we take excellent care of its host, Mr. Cat.
Bottom line: Is a bug pulling our strings?
Technically speaking, I’m not even sure that a parasite is a bug (science teachers, help me out here). But I’m sure it looks like one under a microscope. I’ll bet it looks really disgusting, too.
The whole thing makes me think about some signs my relatives have hanging all around their houses. The signs say things like:
“The cat owns the house. We just work here.”
Things may be worse than they know.
We might all be working for a damned bug.