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CATS: the Nazis of the animal kingdom?

Julian Brouwer in New York
( The Scotsman; Friday March 2 2001 )

US SCIENTISTS have found evidence that cats really do drive people mad.

        Researchers from Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University say their findings show keeping a furry pet can lead to schizophrenia, manic depression and even permanent brain damage.

        Dr Robert Yolken and his colleague, Dr Fuller Torrey, who have conducted years of tests, believe a parasite found in cat faeces called toxoplasma gondii infects the human brain.

        Worryingly, pregnant women who contract the parasite, can transmit it to the foetus, with devastating effects on brain development.

        Cats pick up the parasite from eating infected rats or mice but do not themselves suffer ill effects. In the rodents themselves, the parasite produces brain lesions and a host of rather odd behaviours. Dr Torrey and Dr Yolken reveal the parasite can enter the foetal brain, lie dormant for 15 to 30 years, then activate and induce schizophrenia.

        The pair began to suspect a link between schizophrenia and the cat-borne infection because people with the disease are more likely to have been born in late winter or early spring and cats stay inside and use their litter boxes more in winter. They found in one test that children who went on to develop schizophrenia were more likely to come from homes with cats.

        They point to the fact that schizophrenia and other similar illnesses were rare in Europe until the late 19th century, when cats became popular as pets.

        Schizophrenia expert Dr Mary Seeman, a University of Toronto psychiatry professor, says the pair's ideas are "just as plausible as any other theory of schizophrenia, since the causes are completely unknown, other than that genes are involved.

        "These days, infections have been shown to be associated with peptic ulcers and heart attacks, so why not schizophrenia?"

        Pathologists at the Stanley Foundation Brain Bank in Bethesda are now searching for signs of toxoplasma gondii infection in the brains of people who suffered schizophrenia or severe depression. They are about to begin clinical trials in which schizophrenics will be given drugs normally used to treat the infection.

        Despite his theories, Dr Torrey did add a note of hope for animal lovers, saying: "Don’t get rid of your cats yet. We haven’t proven anything yet."

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