The proverbial “cat lady” of a few decades ago was a reclusive female, usually beyond child-bearing years, who “loved” only felines and to whom every stray or abandoned cat in the neighborhood was taken (or dumped into the yard) with the assumption that it would live happily ever after.
It usually wasn’t until the death of the strange, unkempt woman who lived behind shuttered windows and barred doors that bodies of dead cats were discovered under furniture, stuffed into refrigerators or mummified in the walls--trapped in a futile attempt to escape the stifling ammonia that soaked feces-covered floors, furniture and walls and could only be abated by demolition of the entire structure.
Today we have learned much more about the “cat-lady” syndrome, now called “hoarding.” We realize that it varies by degree, but at its extreme this is a sick, tragic obsession—not love! It is a psychotic mania that disregards even the welfare of the animals
The profile of a “cat lady” has also changed. She now may be a young or maturing professional by day who considers her real calling to be that of cat rescuer; and she may seclude herself at night with a menagerie of cats she believes cannot survive without her. When this self-sacrificing behavior becomes detrimental to her personal welfare and that of the animals, it is diagnosed by medical experts as a compulsive mental disorder. . (Far less frequently this condition is discovered in a male.)
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The obvious symptoms are a consuming drive to keep an excessive number of cats, forsaking normal human relationships and social interaction. And, increasingly it is taking on a new mission--roaming streets and alleys at night with cages to trap, neuter and release feral (wild) cats to “save” their lives and is called TNR. Most of these animals face a lifetime of hazards and potential sickness or injury in unsafe and unsanitary locations. “Saving” one more—or a hundred more—is never enough!
New research has scientists wondering if it is really misguided emotions, or if Toxoplasmosis, T.gondii parasites, is actually the source of the Cat Ladies’ obsession for felines, even beyond the welfare of herself or other humans.
CAN CAT ATTRACTION BE MANIPULATED BY PARASITES?
It has been found that the Toxoplasma gondii parasite is capable of changing the brains of whatever organism it infests. A new study explored rats’ response to cat urine. Rats and mice are naturally repulsed by cat urine as a basic survival instinct. However, researchers in a recent study found that when rats and mice with T. gondii infection were exposed to cat urine, they showed activity in brain areas associated with sexual arousal instead, according to Healthland.Time.com. http://healthland.time.com/2011/08/18/crazy-cat-love-caused-by-parasitic-infection/#ixzz20qtNR465
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This caused them to lose their fear of cats and actually be attracted to cat urine and thus more vulnerable to being caught by the cat. Dr. Joanne Webster coined the phrase, “fatal feline attraction” to describe this behavior. She observed that rats and mice infected with Toxoplasma start wandering around and behaving in ways that will bring them to the attention of cats.
THE LINK BETWEEN HUMANS, CATS AND TOXOPLASMA
T. gondii, or Toxoplasma, can be transmitted to, and live in, almost any warm-blooded mammal, but, since it reproduces sexually only in the intestines of cats, it is in the parasite’s genetic interest to be ingested by cats. Being able to manipulate the behavior of rats—cat’s most likely prey —can guarantee the parasite’s survival and proliferation.
It has been found that T.gondii can also alter the thinking patterns of humans. Research in the 1950’s found that this parasite infection in humans may affect personality and possibly even the risk of schizophrenia. Some symptoms of schizophrenia are those which describe the bizarre hoarding and hiding behavior of the “cat ladies”; i.e., trouble keeping friends, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, isolation, and delusions--strongly held beliefs that are not real. (Such as not seeing that animals are suffering and dying from your actions.) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001925/
A study entitled, Effects of Toxoplasma on Human Behavior, published in The Oxford Journal, presents the following for discussion:
“Toxoplasma gondii is the most common protozoan parasite in developed nations. Following the initial acute phase of infection, the parasite assumes a latent form. Up to 80% of the population may be infected, depending on eating habits and exposure to cats. Is it reasonable to expect that latent infection with T. gondii could have an effect on human behavior…? The studies reviewed suggest that T. gondii may have subtle effects on personality and psychomotor performance. If so, this would be consistent with the effects of T. gondii on rodent behavior http://schizophreniabulletin.oxfordjournals.org/content/33/3/757.full
DOPAMINE AND “CAT-CRAZY” BEHAVIOR
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses. In 2009 Glenn McConkey of the University of Leeds, analysed Toxoplasma’s DNA. His experiments suggested that the parasite is indeed interfering with the brain’s dopamine system in rats—and thus that it might be doing the same thing in people. http://www.economist.com/node/16271339
Dr Flegr also found other abnormalities in infected people, including a reduction in “novelty-seeking.” (Could this describe the cat lady’s tendency to concentrate only on felines?)
In 2003, Dr. Fuller Torrey of the Stanley Medical Research Institute, discovered that people who suffer from schizophrenia are almost three times more likely than the general population to have antibodies to Toxoplasma, according to an article entitled, A Game of Cat and Mouse, published in The Economist on June 3, 2010.
“That does not, of course, prove Toxoplasma causes schizophrenia…correlation is not causation.” According to the author, the exact link between toxo and psychotic diseases in humans is “tantalizing, but remains murky.”
But, does it provide some insight into “cat-crazy” compulsive feline attraction?
Woodsman001 takes a more cynical approach in a comment:
“These people are, in effect, being controlled against all reason and common-sense by the very parasite that is reproducing in its primary host-animal - cats.
“The stuff that sci-fi used to be made of comes to reality. Real-life "pod-people". They can't think nor reason beyond the need of ensuring the survival and proliferation of Toxoplasma gondii parasites in their minds. It won't let them.” http://healthland.time.com/2011/08/18/crazy-cat-love-caused-by-parasitic-infection/2/