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Owning a Cat Does Not Cause Mental Illness, Study Finds

Cats Don't Cause Mental Illness, Study Finds

The message for cat owners is clear: There is no evidence that cats pose a risk to children's mental health.

Researchers followed families for nearly 20 years and found that if the parasite does increase mental illness risk, it "does not significantly increase exposure".

The new study looked at almost 5,000 people in the United Kingdom who were born between 1991 and 1992 and followed them until the age of 18.

It had previously been thought that owning a cat could cause psychiatric problems, with felines the primary host of the common parasite Toxoplasma Gondii (T. Gondii), which has been linked to disorders such as schizophrenia - but this new study debunks that myth.

Previous studies were also relatively small and had significant gaps in the data, whereas the new study looked at a large population and was able to account for missing data. The researchers behind the new study wanted to know if contact with cats during childhood heightened risk for mental illness. That said, it's important to keep in mind that some mental disorders linked to the parasite - like schizophrenia - tend to be diagnosed fairly late in life, so only tracking until age 18 might limit the study.

Toxoplasma gondii is a single-celled parasitic organism that can infect most animals and birds. The parasite can also cause serious health problems in people with compromised immune systems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Senior author Dr James Kirkbride said: 'Our study suggests that cat ownership during pregnancy or in early childhood does not pose a direct risk for later psychotic symptoms. At ages 13 and 18 years, the children were brought into clinics to be evaluated for psychotic-like symptoms.

Initially, the researchers did find a link between cat ownership at ages 4 and 10 and symptoms of psychosis at age 13, but this link went away once the researchers took into account other factors that could influence the results, such as the family's social class, the number of times the family moved before the child was 4 years old and the age of the child's parents.

Solmin says that she and her team became interested in investigating the link between cat ownership and psychosis partly because most of the authors on the work actually have a furball of their own. For this reason, pregnant women should follow the public health recommendation to avoid changing cat litter (because the parasite can be present in cat feces), the researchers said. "However, there is good evidence that T. Gondii exposure during pregnancy can lead to serious birth defects and other health problems in children".

People who grow up with cats in the home are no more likely than anyone else to have problems.

Past research was also small compared to the new research, so less people were studied.