Deadly litterbox? Study links cat poop, suicide risk

A study of more than 45,000 women in Denmark found that women infected with a parasite that's carried by cat poop run a higher risk of trying to kill themselves. We've made many jokes over the years about the smell and the hassle, but the cause of the elevated risk isn't figurative despair; it's an actual, real bug: T. gondii. The "T" stands for "toxoplasma" – no surprise, since most of us already know that the risk of toxoplasmosis means pregnant women shouldn't mess around with changing the litter.

Shine Pets thought the self-cleaning litterbox was nuts; now we're not so sure

Teodor Postolache of the University of Maryland's medical school is the senior author of the study, which appeared this week in the scientific journal "Archives of General Psychiatry," and he cautioned against correlating poop and suicide too strongly. "We can't say with certainty that T. gondii caused the women to try to kill themselves," Postolache noted. "But we did find a predictive association between the infection and suicide attempts later in life that warrants additional studies."

Postolache went on to say that they'll continue researching the link – which is good to hear, since about one out of three people worldwide is infected with the parasite. T. gondii is already associated with schizophrenia and changes in behavior, but may hunker down in the brain and muscle cells without producing symptoms. Women in the study were one and half times more likely to attempt suicide than those not infected with T. gondii, the study says – and the higher the levels of T. gondii antibodies, the higher the apparent risk.

"Previous mental illness did not appear to significantly alter these findings," a summary of the study said, so if you've suffered from depression or other mental-health challenges before, it doesn't mean anything either way. The summary also warned that "[t]he relative risk was even higher for violent suicide attempts."

This isn't the first we've heard of the scary-sounding mind-altering parasite. It hit headlines in March of this year when "The Atlantic" published a profile of Jaroslav Flegr, a Czech biologist who thinks T. gondii literally changes people's minds. The piece was called "How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy."

Humans can pick up T. gondii when cleaning litterboxes, but also from eating unwashed produce, or meat that isn't cooked thoroughly; it can also live in water sources. So, depressed-cat-lady headlines aside, it's not as scary as it might sound. Yes, you can get T. gondii from doody – but you can get it other ways, too, and although it does seem to elevate the risk of suicide, it doesn't make it a sure thing. As with anything else, if you're feeling bad or rundown or your family is noticing that you're acting a bit strangely, see a doctor and get a checkup.

We've all made jokes about the cats driving us nuts; now, it seems like scientists have found living proof, but it's probably not that dire. Stay tuned for any updates on prevention – and if you have any experience firsthand with T. gondii, please share in the comments!

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