Are cats to blame for your impulsive behaviour?
Consider yourself a cat person? Be careful – your feline friend might make you more reckless.
Cats are well-known carriers of Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that has been associated with a rise in adventurous and impulsive tendencies. People can pick up the parasite from cats’ feces as well as a variety of other sources, such as undercooked meat and gardening soil.
According to a study published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, Toxo spreads across the brain and increases dopamine production.
Because of this, the parasite has been found to have interesting effects on both animals and humans. Infected mice become more adventurous and less wary of cats – ironically, this is what increases rats’ likelihood to become prey and allow Toxo to reproduce in the cat’s body.
Toxo also influences human behaviour. A study by Charles University in Prague suggested that Toxo infection could lead to heightened anxiety. This manifests in different ways for men and women. Infected men tend to turn more suspicious, withdrawn, prone to breaking rules and oblivious to how other people see them, while infected women have been found to be more outgoing, rule-abiding and image-conscious – for example, dressing up more or wearing expensive, designer brands.
Another study by the University of Colorado re-emphasised Toxo’s effect on risk taking behaviour. It found that infected students were 40 per cent more likely to study business – a relatively risky field – than other disciplines, and 70 per cent more likely to specialise in management and entrepreneurship over other related studies such as the more stable accounting.
It has also been shown that infected men and women are also more likely to get in traffic accidents, develop schizophrenia and engage in self-directed violence.
The way that Toxo influences our brain responses led researchers at the University of California to conclude that “parasite’s subtle effect on individual personality appears to alter the aggregate personality at the population level”.
While humans on average would not be seriously harmed by Toxo infection, the parasite can cause serious illness in those who are pregnant or have weakened immune systems – such as the sick or the elderly – as it can attack their brain, eyes and other organs.
To prevent getting infected, healthdirect recommends cooking meat and poultry well as well as maintaining hygiene – for example, washing hands after handling food or wearing gloves when changing the cat litter.