There has been a lot in the news this week about findings in a scientific study, linking infection from the parasite Toxoplasmosis gondii (T. gondii) and an increase in the rate of suicide attempts. Unfortunately, some "news" sources have portrayed these findings rather sensationally to imply that cat ownership can lead to an increased risk of suicide. Wow. So before your friends and families try to talk you into parting with your kitty companions, let's talk a few facts hereI don't claim to be an expert, so I encourage you to read information from the CDC on Toxoplasmosis (here). In essessence, Toxoplasmosis is a parasite you can get several different ways, one way is through contact with cat feces. As you will see there are several other common ways, the most common being through contaminated meat and contaminated food prep equipment. According to the senior author of the study (here) women in this study had a one and a half higher incidence of suicide attempts then those who were not infected. I encourage you to read the article, it is an easy read and you will come away with a better understanding of where the connection with cats may have come from.
But what does this mean ?
Well first, you can become infected with T. gondii parasite from handling dirty litter from an infected cat. There are, however, common sense practices for handling and personal protection that can help you prevent from becoming infected.
Second, the study did NOT show that there was a direct link between cat ownership and either infection rate or suicide rate in the women in the study. The study focused on women who were infected, but not on how they got their infection.
Third, no one has recommended that you not keep cats as a way to avoid an increased suicide risk. In fact there are many studies showing the benefits of pet companionship and animal assisted therapy on the physical and mental health on those for whom pets are a part of their lives. Pets have been shown to reduce stress, act as a confidant, increase motivation and exercise, provide unconditional love, increase personal responsibility, reduce loneliness... well, you know, the list goes on. In my training with the Livingworks ASSIST Suicide prevention program, one of the suggested things to talk with people considering suicide about, was if they have pets, how they feel about them and what would happen to them if the person were no in their lives. They have found that helping a person see that they have someone or something to care for often refocused them on something positive in their life and helped them reconsider taking their life long enough to get help. People can form bonds with their pets that even moments of despair can't break.
So don't stop enjoying all the goodness our kitty companions bring us, and use common sense cautions to help yourself stay healthy!
DISCLAIMER: This information is not a substitute for medical information and treatment from a medical doctor or therapist for a physical or mental health related issue. If you are experiencing depressive or suicidal thoughts of any kind, contact your physician or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).