Over the past few years, a number of scientific studies and media outlets have reported that Toxoplasma Gondii (T. Gondii) infection could increase a person’s risk of experiencing adverse mental health outcomes – including schizophrenia, suicide, and intermittent rage disorder.
Since domestic cats are the primary hosts of T. Gondii (i.e., they provide an environment within which this parasite can reproduce) some people have speculated that cat ownership may put people at increased risk of mental illness, by exposing them to T. Gondii infection. While a handful of small studies have found evidence to support a link between cat ownership and psychosis, most of these investigations had serious methodological limitations (e.g.: relying on recall of past cat ownership, small sample sizes, missing data, lack of control for other explanations), which may have biased their findings.
To tackle these limitations, we used data from a large, longitudinal sample of approximately 5,000 children, a sub-group of 14,000 children born in the former region of Avon, (UK) between 1991 and 1992. Unlike previous studies, we were able to follow people over time, from birth to late adolescence, and address a number of the limitations of previous studies, including controlling for alternative explanations (including socioeconomic status, ethnicity, other pet ownership and over-crowding) and taking into account missing data. We studied whether mothers who owned a cat: 1) while pregnant; 2) when the child was 4 years old; and 3) 10 years old, were more likely to have children who reported psychotic symptoms (e.g.: experiences of visual or auditory hallucinations, and of paranoia) in early (age 13) and late adolescence (age 18).
We found that children who were born and raised in households that included cats at any time period were not at a higher risk of having psychotic symptoms when they were 13 or 18 years old. This finding in a large, representative sample was robust against issues of missing data and alternative explanations. Although most people who experience psychotic symptoms in adolescence will not develop schizophrenia later in life, they can indicate an increased risk for such disorders.
It is important to remember that there is evidence linking T. Gondii exposure in pregnancy to risk of miscarriage and stillbirth or health complications in offspring. We therefore recommend that pregnant women should continue to avoid handling soiled cat litter and other sources of T. Gondii infection (such as raw or undercooked meats or unwashed fruit and vegetables). That said, data from our study suggests that cat ownership during pregnancy or in early childhood does not pose a direct risk for later offspring psychotic symptoms.