There's A Link Between Cat Ownership And Schizophrenia

06/11/2015 09:54 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2015

Growing up with a family cat is a significant if improbable commonality among people who develop schizophrenia.

"Cat ownership in childhood has now been reported in three studies to be significantly more common in families in which the child is later diagnosed with schizophrenia or another serious mental illness," wrote the researchers behind a new study published in the journal Schizophrenia Research.

Those researchers -- E. Fuller Torrey and Wendy Simmons of the Stanley Medical Research Institute and Robert H. Yolken of the Stanley Laboratory of Developmental Neurovirology -- looked at an unused 1982 questionnaire that had been distributed to 2,125 families that belonged to the National Institute of Mental Illness, and found that 50.6 percent of people who developed schizophrenia owned a cat in childhood. These results were strikingly similar to two smaller studies conducted among NAMI members in the 1990s that found a 50.9 and 51.9 percent correlation.

Some 1.1 percent of the population has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, while 30-37 percent of American households have a cat, according to the ASPCA.

Of course, this research merely shows a link rather than a causal relationship. But researchers theorize that the parasite Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii), which is found in cats and can be passed on to humans, could play some role in the development of the mental illness. Schizophrenia affects 2.5 million Americans, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center.

"T. gondii gets into the brain and forms microscopic cysts. We think it then becomes activated in late adolescence and causes disease, probably by affecting the neurotransmitters," Torrey told The Huffington Post.

In addition to schizophrenia, T. gondii is linked to miscarriages, fetal development disorder, flu-related illness, blindness and, in extreme cases, death, according to Time. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than 60 million people in the U.S. have T. gondii, people with strong immune systems generally don't show any symptoms. Researchers suggest keeping cats indoors since T. gondii can be transmitted through neighboring cats, and keeping litter boxes covered, since T. gondii can be transmitted to humans if they accidentally come in contact with cat feces, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Further study is needed to ascertain how big the link between cats and schizophrenia actually is, and the study's authors encouraged researchers in other countries to conduct their own surveys. It's also important to note that the overall instance of schizophrenia is low.

Owning a cat comes with plenty of benefits. According to a 2008 study from researchers at the University of Minnesota's Stroke Institute, cat owners are 30 percent less likely to die of a heart attack. Plus, spending time with pets eases feelings of loneliness, according to the CDC.

H/T Time

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  • 1
    The Amazing Acro-Cats
  • The Amazing Acro-Cats consists of 14 cats -- of which all but two are female.

    There's also three performing rats (all female), one groundhog (male) and a hen named Cluck Norris, who plays cymbals in the Acro-Cats' house band, the Rock Cats.

    Cluck Norris also lays eggs. "We eat them," says Samantha Martin, the Acro-Cats creator and ringleader.
  • 2
    The Amazing Acro-Cats
  • The Amazing Acro-Cats and their human helpers -- Martin, as well as publicist Polly Smith and fearless assistant Seunga Park -- travel about 10 months of the year on a "purr-fect" 35-foot tour bus that is kitted out for the cats' maximum comfort. For example, the cats get the on-board master bedroom.

    "The cats have more room than the humans," says Martin.
  • 3
    The Amazing Acro-Cats
  • Samantha Martin's first traveling animal circus specialized in rats.

    "The Amazing Acro-Rats," she says. "I couldn't make a living on just rats."

    About a decade ago, Martin switched to that other misunderstood, often underestimated breed of animal: cats. She'd put on cat shows at art galleries and other small venues, and began realizing this might be a more sustainable venture.

    "People started showing up in droves," Martin says.
  • 4
    The Acro-Cats
  • The group contains a Guinness Book of World Records record-holder!

    Alley the cat, who was rescued as a kitten from a Chicago alleyway, now holds the record for longest jump by a cat.

    She earned that recognition by jumping 6 feet on October 27, 2013.
  • 5
    The Amazing Acro-Cats
  • The cats and other performing critters are taught their tricks using only positive reinforcement, like clicker training and food treats. They're never scolded or punished.

    "No one protests after they've seen the show," Martin says. "It's not cruel in any way."
  • 6
    The Amazing Acro-Cats
  • You may not be able to run off with the cat circus, exactly. But you can definitely participate!

    Volunteers in each city help out with the box office and wrangling cats between shows. Or if you've got a pad where the kitties can crash for a couple of days between gigs, that's also very welcome.

    As are folks who have some bus-fixing skills they want to donate.

    It's an "old bus," says Martin. Here's where to get in touch.
  • 7
    The Amazing Acro-Cats
  • The Rock Cats are (as far as we know) the world's only feline rock band.

    Tuna the cat is on cowbell. Sookie plays the chimes. Nue's on keyboards. Dakota hammers away on the drums. And, of course, Cluck Norris pecks away at the cymbals.

    The result: a little dada. A little daffy. Completely delightful.
  • 8
    The Amazing Acro-Cats
  • The Amazing Acro-Cats often travel with foster kittens, who are available for adoption. In fact, since Martin has a special fondness for the teeniest kitties, the tour bus travels with an incubator.

    All these babies get basic clicker training, Martin says, and most are able to high-five by the time they are dispatched to their forever families.

    So far, 157 cats have been fostered and then adopted into permanent homes, Martin says. That should be 158 soon -- an adoption application has been put in in for a sweet little orange guy named Opie.
  • 9
    The Amazing Acro-Cats
  • The Acro-Cats aren't just here to entertain you (though, certainly, they will do that). Samantha Martin is also using her feline circus to show you that cats are really, really fun and trainable.

    "I want to help people build a better relationship with their cat," she says.

    To that end, Martin has devised a cat training kit. We can't promise your cat will do leaps like this one on command after using the kit, but we can promise you all will have a good time.
  • 10
    The Amazing Acro-Cats
  • The cats can sometimes be a bit persnickety. As well-trained as they are, as much fresh tuna as they're rewarded with, feline performers don't always feel like doing their tricks.

    Cluck Norris, on the other hand, never misses her mark.

    "You don't see cat circuses around because people can't stand the humiliation," says Martin. "Cluck is a total professional. Has a good work ethic."
  • 11
    The Amazing Acro-Cats
  • Home is an apartment in Chicago with a big screened-in yard, where, Martin says, she and the cats pretty much do the same things as what they do on stage, in front of an audience.

    The jumps and tightropes are spread out across the living room, and the Rock Cats' instruments are set up in the kitchen, where they like to play while Martin cooks.

    "This is what I would do at home," she says, wearing a cat ear headband, and gesturing toward one Acro-Cat who's climbing up a tower, and another seated at a set of drums, while several more sit on scraps of purple carpet -- their "marks" -- and other perches, waiting to be rewarded for their efforts. (Cluck Norris is napping in her carrier, and Garfield the groundhog is running laps around the room, pausing only occasionally to be petted.)

    But as fun as it is being home -- and it is fun, for those couple of months a year -- getting back on the road is also a good time, for Martin and the rest of the gang.

    "I love to travel. I love to see the countryside," she says. "And I get to be with my pets 24/7."

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