New Research Challenges Alleged Links Between Cat Ownership and Mental Illness

Writing last week for Scientific American, Yale School of Medicine research fellow Jack Turban waded into the controversy surrounding cat ownership, Toxoplasma gondii, and the parasite’s alleged role in mental illness—asking (and answering) the question, “are cats really to blame for psychotic behavior?” As it turns out, not so much.*

“In the largest and best-controlled study to date, the researchers showed that those exposed to cats were at no increased risk of psychosis after controlling for a number of other variables (including ethnicity, social class, and dog ownership—to control for exposure to animal stool).”

But wait—what about all those scary headlines…? Read more

Pet-Friendly Bills Struggle in the Florida Legislature

Despite an early victory in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee, Florida’s HB 1121, the “Community Cat Act,” didn’t make it out of committee to be voted on this session. Ditto for HB 1127, the “Pets’ Trust” bill.

It was a disappointing session for those of interested in saving the lives of companion animals—one made worse by the kind of lazy, irresponsible media coverage that only serves to misinform the public. (It does appear, however, that SB 674, which would require shelters and animal control agencies to maintain—and make available to the public—intake and disposition records, is receiving broad approval.)

I was, not surprisingly, watching HB 1121 more closely than the others—but when a helpful reader pointed out that discussion of HB 1127 in the Local and Federal Affairs Committee on April 4th was broadcast online, I had to take a look. Especially when she told me who was speaking out in opposition to the bill. Read more

2012 Year In Review

Inspired by Nicholas Felton’s stunning Feltron Annual Reports, a brief overview of 2012…

Rabies: Some Much-Needed Perspective

Seven minutes and 35 seconds. That’s how long Robert Siegel, co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered, spoke with Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy about their new book, Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus.

Cats weren’t mentioned even once.

Was this a massive oversight? A coup perpetrated by the Powerful Cat Lobby, perhaps?

Hardly. “Veterinarians spend a lot of time thinking about rabies, even though in this country, we hardly ever see it,” explained Murphy, a veterinarian. (Wasik, her husband, is a journalist.)

The scaremongerers over at the American Bird Conservancy and The Wildlife Society must be downright distraught at the thought of the American public being better informed on the subject. Indeed, an excerpt from Rabid describes some of the underlying myths and cultural baggage these folks routinely attempt to leverage in their witch-hunt against free-roaming cats.

“As the lone visible instance of animal-to-human infection, rabies has always shaded into something more supernatural: into bestial metamorphoses, into monstrous hybridities. Even during the twentieth century, after Pasteur’s invention of a rabies vaccine provided a near-foolproof means of preventing its fatality in humans, our dark fascination with rabies seemed only to swell. The vaccine itself became as mythologized as the bug, such that even today many Americans believe that treatment requires some twenty (or is it thirty?) shots, delivered with a foot-long syringe into the stomach. (In fact, today’s vaccine entails four shots, and not particularly deep in the arm.)

It’s almost as if the very anachronism of rabies, to the Western mind, has rendered it even more intriguing to us. Like the vampire, rabies carries with it the musty whiff of a centuries-old terror—even as it still terrifies us in the present day.”

Not exactly your typical summertime reading, maybe, but this one’s going on my list. I wonder if I can get signed copies for ABC’s Darin Schroeder and TWS’s Michael Hutchins

Crazy Is As Crazy Does

An article in The Atlantic describes fascinating research into the effects of Toxoplasma gondii infection, but what role do domestic cats really play?

Although we’re not even halfway through February, an article in the March issue of The Atlantic is already getting a lot of attention. But with a title like “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy,” that’s no surprise. (Don’t get me wrong: the article is a great read.)

What is surprising is that the story hasn’t been picked up by the American Bird Conservancy or, more likely, The Wildlife Society.

Not yet, anyhow. Surely, it’s only a matter of days before ABC, TWS, and others (mis)use the article to stir up their witch-hunt against free-roaming cats. A careful read, however, suggests such a move would be both premature and misguided (as if that makes any difference).

Excerpts
At the center of “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy” is the intriguing research* of Jaroslav Flegr, an evolutionary biologist at Charles University in Prague, who’s spent the past 20 years or so exploring the possible connections between infection with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite cats can pass in their feces, and human behavior.

“Healthy children and adults,” explains writer Kathleen McAuliffe, “usually experience nothing worse than brief flu-like symptoms before quickly fighting off the protozoan, which thereafter lies dormant inside brain cells—or at least that’s the standard medical wisdom.”

But if Flegr is right, the ‘latent’ parasite may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents. And that’s not all. He also believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia.

As I say, it’s just a matter of time—and not much of it, I suspect—before TNR opponents jump all over this, shaping it to fit their (tired) message.

I expect to see the lengthy quote from Joanne Webster, a parasitologist at Imperial College London, parsed very carefully, for example. Webster and her colleagues discovered that Toxo-infected rats are actually attracted to cat urine, a phenomenon they dubbed “fatal feline attraction.” Commenting on Flegr’s research, Webster is, in McAuliffe’s words, “more circumspect, if not downright troubled.”

I don’t want to cause any panic. In the vast majority of people, there will be no ill effects, and those who are affected will mostly demonstrate subtle shifts of behavior. But in a small number of cases, [Toxo infection] may be linked to schizophrenia and other disturbances associated with altered dopamine levels—for example, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and mood disorders. The rat may live two or three years, while humans can be infected for many decades, which is why we may be seeing these severe side effects in people. We should be cautious of dismissing such a prevalent parasite.

I imagine those first two sentences will be among the first to be dropped from any ABC or TWS reference to the article. As will this response from Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford:

…I’m not too worried, in that the effects on humans are not gigantic. If you want to reduce serious car accidents, and you had to choose between curing people of Toxo infections versus getting people not to drive drunk or while texting, go for the latter in terms of impact.

Infection in Humans
“Humans,” explains McAuliffe, “are exposed not only by coming into contact with litter boxes, but also, he found, by drinking water contaminated with cat feces, eating unwashed vegetables, or, especially in Europe, by consuming raw or undercooked meat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the infection rate in the U.S. among those 12 and older is estimated to be 22.5 percent.

And while Toxoplasmosis “can come from cats,” the CDC points out that “people are more likely to get it from eating raw meat or from gardening.”

Nowhere in McAuliffe’s article does she mention the proportion of people infected through contact with cat feces, as compared to those infected from eating raw or undercooked meat. For the purposes of Flegr’s work, the source is largely immaterial. (And, virtually impossible to know, I gather—which would explain why I’ve never seen so much a guess.)

Infection in Cats
In the infamous “University of Nebraska-Lincoln paper,” published in 2010, the authors report—correctly, according to their source—that “most feral cats (62 percent to 80 percent) tested positive for toxoplasmosis.” [1] Trouble is, testing positive—seroprevalence—is simply not a useful measure of their ability to infect other animals or people.

“Most cats only shed oocysts for about one week in their life” (Note: The Atlantic suggests a three-week duration, as noted below) and seroconvert afterward. [2] “Thus, it is a reasonable assumption that most seropositive cats have already shed oocysts.” [2] “Testing positive,” in this case, is nothing more than the detection of antibodies resulting from seroconversion. Furthermore, because “most seronegative cats shed millions of oocysts after exposure to T. gondii… seropositive cats are likely to be less of a public health risk than seronegative cats.” [3]

Environmental Contamination
Because Flegr’s work doesn’t involve environmental contamination, McAuliffe only touched on the subject (“the parasite is typically picked up from the soil by scavenging or grazing animals—notably rodents, pigs, and cattle…”). For many TNR opponents, however, this is a hot topic—as some have suggested a direct connection between the presence of domestic cats and toxo-related infections in other animals, primarily land and marine mammals. (See, for example, my post from May 17 of last year.)

As a recent paper reports, bluntly: “Cats are the definitive host: the disease only occurs when cats are present.” [4] In fact, this claim is contradicted by a number of studies:

  • High levels (75 percent) of congenital transmission of T. gondii, for example, in a “wild population of mice,” led UK researchers to conclude “that this phenomenon might be more widespread than previously thought.” [5] Infections in sheep also point to congenital transmission, which “may be more important than previously considered.” [6]
  • The “high incidence of T. gondii found, among others, in free-living ruminants suggests a possibility of other, so far unknown, paths of transmission of this protozoan.” [7] “Due to the fact that they are widespread, and tick-bites occur frequently both in humans and in animals, ticks might play an important role in toxoplasmosis transmission.” [7]
  • Of particular interest are studies in the Arctic, where the prevalence of T. gondii infection in arctic foxes, Svalbard reindeer, sibling voles, walruses, kittiwakes, barnacle geese, and glaucous gulls “indicates that infection by oocysts is not an important mode of transmission on Svalbard.” [8] “T. gondii most likely is brought to Svalbard by migratory birds that become infected in temperate agricultural areas in the winter. However, marine sources of infection may exist. The high seroprevalence of T. gondii in the arctic fox population on Svalbard may be due to: (1) infection from migratory bird species through predation; (2) vertical transmission; and (3) tissue cyst transmission within the Svalbard ecosystem through scavenging and cannibalism. Together, these transmission routes cause a surprisingly high seroprevalence of T. gondii in a top predator living in an ecosystem with very few cats.” [8] Researchers studying infection rates in polar bears concluded: “It would… be inconceivable to assume that the few cats would play a major role in the epidemiology of T. gondii in the vast high Arctic. This is apparently the case in East Greenland as well.” [9]

In the Spring 2011 issue of The Wildlife Professional’s special section, “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats,” the authors argue: “Based on proximity and sheer numbers, outdoor pet and feral domestic cats may be the most important source of T. gondii oocysts in near-shore marine waters. Mountain lions and bobcats rarely dwell near the ocean or in areas of high human population density, where sea otter infections are more common.” [10] What the fail to acknowledge is that the most common type of T. gondii found to be infecting sea otters is the Type X strain, [11] which has yet to be traced to domestic cats, [12] or that “dual infections of T. gondii and S. neurona were more frequently associated with mortality and protozoal encephalitis than single infections, indicating a role for polyparasitism in disease severity.” [13]

Now What?
So, what are we to make of all this?

Or, as McAuliffe poses the question: “Given all the nasty science swirling around this parasite, is it time for cat lovers to switch their allegiance to other animals?”

Even Flegr would advise against that. Indoor cats pose no threat, he says, because they don’t carry the parasite. As for outdoor cats, they shed the parasite for only three weeks of their life, typically when they’re young and have just begun hunting. During that brief period, Flegr simply recommends taking care to keep kitchen counters and tables wiped clean. (He practices what he preaches: he and his wife have two school-age children, and two outdoor cats that have free roam of their home.)

Certainly, there’s still plenty we don’t know about T. gondii. A May 2011 article in Scientific American, for example, concedes simply: “The exact link between T. gondii and psychiatric diseases is tantalizing but remains murky.” [14]

Most telling of all may be the reaction of the pharmaceutical industry. Or, lack of a reaction, to be more precise. “Until solid proof exists that Toxo is as dangerous as some scientists now fear,” observes McAuliffe, “pharmaceutical companies don’t have much incentive to develop anti-Toxo drugs.” And if Big Pharma doesn’t think there’s money to be made here, how worried should we really be?

•     •     •

If history is any indication, “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy” will be badly misrepresented by some TNR opponents, used to further vilify free-roaming cats as a public health threat. Not that they’ll offer anything in the way of a solution, of course—just more fear-mongering.

Now, if ABC, TWS, and all the rest are really concerned about toxo, why not propose a meat-free diet? OK, now that’s crazy.

*As opposed to, say, the unconvincing claims attempting to link T. gondii to brain cancer, published in a paper last summer. As expected, TWS took the bait.

Literature Cited
1. Hildreth, A.M., Vantassel, S.M., and Hygnstrom, S.E., Feral Cats and Their Management. 2010, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension: Lincoln, NE. elkhorn.unl.edu/epublic/live/ec1781/build/ec1781.pdf

2. Dubey, J.P. and Jones, J.L., “Toxoplasma gondii infection in humans and animals in the United States.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1257–1278. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4S85DPK-1/2/2a1f9e590e7c7ec35d1072e06b2fa99d

3. Vollaire, M.R., Radecki, S.V., and Lappin, M.R., “Seroprevalence of Toxoplasma gondii antibodies in clinically ill cats in the United States.” American Journal of Veterinary Research. 2005. 66(5): p. 874–877. http://dx.doi.org/10.2460/ajvr.2005.66.874

4. Duffy, D.C. and Capece, P., “Biology and Impacts of Pacific Island Invasive Species 7. The Domestic Cat (Felis catus).” Pacific Science. 2011. 66(2 (Early View)): p. 000–000. http://pacificscience.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/pac-sci-early-view-66-2-6.pdf

5. Marshall, P.A., et al., “Detection of high levels of congenital transmission of Toxoplasma gondii in natural urban populations of Mus domesticus.” Parasitology. 2004. 128(01): p. 39–42. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0031182003004189

6. Hide, G., et al., “Evidence for high levels of vertical transmission in Toxoplasma gondii.” Parasitology. 2009. 136(Special Issue 14): p. 1877-1885. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0031182009990941

7. Sroka, J., Szymańska, J., and Wójcik-Fatla, A., “The occurrence of Toxoplasma gondii and Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato in Ixodes ricinus ticks from eastern Poland with the use of PCR.” Annals of Agricultural and Environmental Medicine. 2009. 16(2): p. 313–319.

8. Prestrud, K.W., et al., “Serosurvey for Toxoplasma gondii in arctic foxes and possible sources of infection in the high Arctic of Svalbard.” Veterinary Parasitology. 2007. 150(1–2): p. 6–12. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6TD7-4PYR4P2-2/2/fcc91fcf1d1426cd1b750bd3840bdb31

9. Oksanen, A., et al., “Prevalence of Antibodies Against Toxoplasma gondii in Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) From Svalbard and East Greenland.” Journal of Parasitology. 2009. 95(1): p. 89–94. http://dx.doi.org/10.1645/GE-1590.1

10. Jessup, D.A. and Miller, M.A., “The Trickle-Down Effect.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 62–64.

11. Conrad, P.A., et al., “Transmission of Toxoplasma: Clues from the study of sea otters as sentinels of Toxoplasma gondii flow into the marine environment.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2005. 35(11-12): p. 1155-1168. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4GWC8KV-2/2/2845abdbb0fd82c37b952f18ce9d0a5f

12. Miller, M.A., et al., “Type X Toxoplasma gondii in a wild mussel and terrestrial carnivores from coastal California: New linkages between terrestrial mammals, runoff and toxoplasmosis of sea otters.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1319-1328. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4RXJYTT-2/2/32d387fa3048882d7bd91083e7566117

13. Gibson, A.K., et al., “Polyparasitism Is Associated with Increased Disease Severity in Toxoplasma gondii-Infected Marine Sentinel Species.” PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases. 2011. 5(5): p. e1142. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pntd.0001142

14. Koch, C., “Protozoa Could Be Controlling Your Brain.” Scientific American. 2011. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=fatal-attraction

Hoarding: Mendota, Illinois

On Tuesday, Illinois Valley Cat Taxi, Inc., located in Mendota (about 100 miles southwest of Chicago) put out a plea for help.

“Last week we were called to assist the cats living in and outside of a home where a lady with a serious hoarding illness resides. Neighbors were concerned about sick cats, dead cats, foul smells coming from the home, filth. In cooperation with Social Services and with rescue help from Spay It Forward, we went to the scene Saturday evening and began removing the most urgent cats.”

As the photos (some of the them on the graphic side) demonstrate the neighbors had good reason to be concerned. (Photos are posted on Cat Taxi’s blog and their Facebook page.)

Not surprisingly, this rescue is far from over.

“…our work continues removing cats even as we tend to the wounded we’ve already taken in. Many of the cats are friendly—these each deserve a new, loving home where they will be cherished and we will ensure that each cat receives a wonderful new home once they are healthy, neutered, vaccinated, and microchipped [adoption applications]. Many of the cats are feral—these will each enter our Barn Cat Program and be relocated in groups to farm adopters where they will have haylofts to sleep in, field mice to chase, and full bowls of chow every day.”

Last I checked, the group is $595 toward their goal of $2,500 (the estimated cost of veterinary care). If you can help, please do so.

Cat Taxi is making it quick and easy—see their blog for the ChipIn! donation link.

Not in a position to donate right now? It’s understandable. You can always show them your support by “Liking” their Facebook page (and while you’re at it, how about “Liking” the Spay It Forward (brilliant name!) page, too?).

My sincere thanks to the people at Illinois Valley Pet Taxi, Inc. and Spay It Forward for stepping in!

Friends with Benefits

According to their 2009 Annual Report (the most recent available), Friends Of the National Zoo raised $17.5M in “total support and revenue” during 2009. Of that, $1.4M went to the National Zoo and Smithsonian Institution. But FONZ support doesn’t end there.

Consider the response I received from a FONZ spokesperson when I inquired about their position on the Zoo’s decision to keep Nico Dauphine on board:

Thank you for contacting the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and FONZ regarding the allegations against Dr. Nico Dauphine, a postdoctoral research fellow based within the Migratory Bird Center. We take our role as the nation’s zoo very seriously and work hard to provide leadership in animal care, conservation science, education, and sustainability.

Animal care is one of the Zoo’s top priorities, and we appreciate when visitors share our passion and concern for our animals’ well-being. Please be assured that Dr. Dauphine’s research in no way jeopardizes animals, and the Smithsonian has taken appropriate temporary precautions with respect to her postdoctoral appointment. These restrictions will allow this matter to be fairly resolved within the judicial system.

Our leadership team thanks you for sharing our passion for the Zoo, and your continued support is greatly appreciated.

Now, compare that to the response a colleague received about the same time from the National Zoo (this shouldn’t take long):

Thank you for contacting the Smithsonian’s National Zoo regarding the allegations against Dr. Nico Dauphine, a postdoctoral research fellow based within the Migratory Bird Center. We take our role as the nation’s zoo very seriously and work hard to provide leadership in animal care, conservation science, education, and sustainability.

Animal care is one of the Zoo’s top priorities, and we appreciate when visitors share our passion and concern for our animals’ well-being. Please be assured that Dr. Dauphine’s research in no way jeopardizes animals, and the Smithsonian has taken appropriate temporary precautions with respect to her postdoctoral appointment. These restrictions will allow this matter to be fairly resolved within the judicial system.

Our leadership team thanks you for sharing our passion for the Zoo, and your continued support is greatly appreciated.

All this talk of leadership and animal care seems like a mix of wishful thinking and damage control more than anything else. Would the reaction—from either the Zoo or FONZ—be the same if the animals involved weren’t neighborhood cats, but animals in the Zoo’s collection? I rather doubt it.

(Oh, and for the record: the Zoo does not have my continued support.)

•     •     •

“A friend will help you move,” goes the old joke. “A good friend will help you move a body.”

When FONZ says they’re “the dedicated partner of the National Zoological Park,” they mean it. Indeed, FONZ seems just as interested as the National Zoo in sweeping this whole “attempted animal cruelty” business under the rug. (Imagine: bad press the week before the busy Memorial Day weekend!)

Earlier this week, I sent my comments to National Zoo director Dennis Kelly via the Zoo’s incredibly opaque contact form. It turns out the same form is used to contact FONZ—bringing to mind the image of a series of individual recycling bins that, in fact, all lead to the same destination: the trash. Rather than falling for the same trick once more, then, I’m posting my message to FONZ right here:

Friends don’t let friends employ accused cat killers.

Perfectly Comfortable? I’m Not.

As many of you know, the National Zoo has shown no signs of suspending Nico Dauphine, despite her recent arrest on charges of attempted animal cruelty. As a result, at least two petitions are being circulated—one by Alley Cat Rescue, and another by Alley Cat Allies.

I encourage readers to sign both petitions, and also to send letters (an online form is available here). Below is my letter to National Zoo director Dennis Kelly:

Dear Dennis Kelly,

As you know, the National Zoo’s mission emphasizes leadership—in animal care, science, and education—as well as “the highest quality animal care.” But recent events indicate that Zoo management has lost sight of this noble mission.

Indeed, allowing Dr. Nico Dauphine—recently charged with attempted animal cruelty in connection with the poisoning of cats in her neighborhood—to continue her work for the Zoo’s Migratory Bird Center demonstrates a profound lack of leadership, and suggests a remarkably narrow view of “animal care.”

Comments made last week by the Zoo’s associate director of communications, Pamela Baker-Masson, only made matters worse—suggesting that Zoo management isn’t even aware of the research Dauphine is conducting. Baker-Masson told ABC News:

“We know what she’s doing would in no way jeopardize our animal collection at the National Zoo or jeopardize wildlife, so we feel perfectly comfortable that she continue her research.”

But, according to the Migratory Bird Center’s Website, Dauphine’s “current project examines predator-prey dynamics in an urban matrix in collaboration with citizen scientists at Neighborhood Nestwatch.”

The predators in this case are, of course, house cats. And, according to an online application form she’s been using to recruit field assistants (the form was recently removed from the Migratory Bird Center’s Website), Dauphine is asking participating citizen scientists to put cameras on their cats.

And still, the National Zoo feels “perfectly comfortable that she continue her research.” What kind of message does this send to the local community, and to the nation as a whole?

The Smithsonian’s 2009 Annual Report indicates that 75 percent of the organization’s revenue comes from “federal appropriations” (63 percent) and “government grants and contracts” (12 percent). One way or another, these are tax dollars. In standing by Dauphine, then, the National Zoo is violating the trust of its primary funding source: the American people (among whom, 38.9 million households own cats).

Finally, the National Zoo should use the current crisis as an opportunity to review its hiring practices. I think it’s safe to say that Dauphine’s reputation preceded her when she joined your organization. Her extreme position against TNR—and free-roaming cats in general—is well documented. As is her habit of misrepresenting the science surrounding the issue.

In her February 10, 2008, letter to the editor of the St. Petersburg Times, for example, Dauphine—who identifies herself as “a scientist who has studied this issue”—makes an outlandish claim:

“In North America, cats may be the single biggest direct cause of bird mortality, far outnumbering all other causes (including human hunters) put together!”

Not even the American Bird Conservancy—which has, for the past 15 years, taken every opportunity to demonize free-roaming cats—goes this far.

And yet, the National Zoo has Dauphine, together with Dr. Peter Marra (who, in a letter co-authored with Dr. Dauphine, has called TNR “cat hoarding without walls.”), [1] researching the hunting habits of house cats. All of which raises questions about the rigor and validity of the research being conducted—not to mention the integrity of those involved.

As the National Zoo’s director, you have the responsibility to address these issues. I am, therefore, asking you to start by suspending Dr. Dauphine until the charges of attempted animal cruelty are dropped, proven to be unfounded, or in some other way resolved.

Respectfully,

Peter J. Wolf
Independent Researcher/Analyst
Vox Felina

Literature Cited
1. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Conservation Biology. 2010. 24(2): p. 627–629. www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/pdf/Lepczyk-2010-Conservation%2520Biology.pdf