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Cat Lady Parasite

July 12, 2013

I’m not sure how many of you have ever heard of a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii – sometimes referred to as the cat lady parasite – but let me tell you, this thing is insane. In the US alone it’s estimated that more than 60 million people are carrying it. It’s not a huge parasite (like the tapeworm for example), in fact it’s small enough to live inside the cells of its host. That can be pretty much any animal – although it will only sexually reproduce in feline intestinal cells.

So you might be wondering how exactly we can become infected with this if it prefers cats. Well, when it reproduces in the gut cells it forms these tiny little cysts called “oocysts” (eew) that will eventually become so numerous that the host cell ruptures. This dumps the oocysts into the intestine and they eventually get deposited in your garden by that asshole neighborhood cat.

So then what happens next? Well, I’ll give you some scenarios.

1. You harvest veggies from that garden and don’t wash the poo-infested soil off well enough. Boom – parasite.
2. You stick your fingers in the dirt for funsies and don’t wash them before picking your nose. Whammy – parasite.
3. Your cat somehow rolls in/steps in/straight up eats the poo and then shits his own oocysts into the litter box. You clean litter box and then eat a sandwich. PARASITED.

All your cells are belong to us.

Anyway these are just some examples, but truly the most common means of infection are eating contaminated food, drinking poo water, or coming into contact with a litter box. In normal people there aren’t really any symptoms and the immune system keeps things in check. However, in some people this infection can cause flu-like symptoms… especially the very young and the immunodeficient. It’s also super bad for women who are pregnant, because it can infect the placenta or the fetus and cause birth defects, neurological disorders, and even stillbirth. THIS THING IS NOT GOOD.

There’s also some interesting and only somewhat supported research into the behavioral changes this parasite can cause. It’s been correlated with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and suicide (disclaimer: correlation doesn’t imply fact, just observation). Interestingly, rodents that are infected with it will actually display signs of attraction toward cat urine placed in their cage – that ain’t normal obviously. The hypothesis is that this sort of behavioral change causes infected mice to become easier cat prey, therefore allowing the parasite to make it back into it’s favorite host and continue it’s reproductive life cycle. This is why people think perhaps it makes infected humans into “cat lady” types, because it might cause them to have more affection for felines.

Here, kitty kitty!

So anyway, it’s just something you ought to be aware of when scooping litter, weeding your garden, or washing produce. NPR recently reported that these oocysts are also found in other places, like playgrounds and sandboxes. Pretty much this thing is everywhere. I guess it’s time to accept one of two fates. Either you must become a bubble-dwelling germophobe or a parasite-ridden cat enthusiast. There are no other options.


From → Biology

  1. Doctor Andy permalink

    This reminds me a story in the Atlantic last year about some of the behavioral ramification fo Toxoplasma infections beyond the cat lady thing. It’s a pretty good read if you have the time.

  2. Doctor Andy permalink

    Ugh forgot to proofread.

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