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Toxoplasma gondii: Cats� Secret Weapon for Brain Control

Cats have always known they’re large and in charge. Now science confirms it.

According to a story on NBC News/Health, Scientists at the University of California Berkeley have discovered that a parasite found lurking in cats’ waste products can cause long-term brain changes …in rats and mice.

Are Infected Rodents Easier to Catch?

The parasite is called Toxoplasma gondii and the scientists say that it takes effect almost right away, and keeps on keeping on, changing rodent behavior patterns so that mice and rats lose their fear of the smell of cat urine. Apparently these brain-washed mice actually learn to love that distinctive, stinko smell (hey Mickey, want to take charge of cleaning litter boxes? A nation of cat parents will keep you very busy!).

By learning to love cat pee, and losing their natural fear of felines—a survival tool for all rodents—mice become foolishly brave and more likely to be captured by cats who are always on the hunt, even if not for dinner. If the cats devour their prey, the mice that carry that mind-blowing Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite is guaranteed yet another round of life, say the scientists. It  can only reproduce in the gut of cats, so it is expelled in cats’ feces…and the circle of mice-life rolls on.

Outside The (Litter) Box

For years,  Toxoplasma gondii has been notorious for potentially infecting people as well as cats, especially pregnant women, who are told that cat litter is dangerous! Anyone expecting a baby is warned to stay away from litter boxes--as if a pregnant woman has nothing else to do but plunge her hands into used kitty litter? This dire warning has sadly resulted in many cats being given away, dumped, even euthanized, by worried moms-to-be and their families. The truth is, this parasite does not normally bother humans. It can cause brain inflammation, known as encephalitis, in anyone with a compromised immune system, such as a pregnant woman, but when common sense prevails, there is no need to punish the cat for being a cat. Pregnant women who fear Toxoplasma gondii have the perfect excuse to delegate the chore of litter box cleaning to a devoted spouse or hard-working child. And while the Centers for Disease Control  says that while more than 60 million people in the U.S. may carry Toxoplasma gondii , their immune systems prevent it from causing illness or even being noticed.

The scientists behind the study are quick to point out that they used a specially engineered version of the parasite, kind of a super-parasite, for their experiment. And they admit their work does not explain the cliché of ‘crazy cat ladies’ or the megamillions of cat videos charming us incyberspace. They only know, mice will now salute cats, not run from them.

So the cats who believe they’re going to control your brain, getting you to obey every command in cat-dom--- no, sorry, Fluffy, that’s just not happening. Yet.

Image: Africa Studio/via Shutterstock

Kathy Blumenstock

Kathy Blumenstock

Kathy Blumenstock has been passionate about animals since childhood, when she had dreams of becoming a veterinarian - caring for injured animals that showed up in her family backyard - or a jockey (fueled by reading every book about horses in the library). She's been featured in The Washington Post, USA Today, Entertainment Tonight and TV Week.

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