More Cats, Less Brain Cancer

“Evidence continues to pile up,” writes Michael Hutchins, Executive Director and CEO of The Wildlife Society, in yesterday’s blog post, “that Toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by a parasite (Toxoplasma gondii) that lives in the guts of cats, may be responsible for serious human health problems.”

Hutchins was referring to a recent study in which researchers found “Infection with T. gondii was associated with a 1.8-fold increase in the risk of brain cancers across the range of T. gondii prevalence in our dataset (4–67 percent).” [1]

True to form, Hutchins used the opportunity to call for “doing away with managed cat colonies and TNR (trap-neuter-release) management practices for feral cats,” making a public plea to “public health officials, including the CDC.”

But what exactly does this latest study contribute to Hutchins’ “pile of evidence”?

The Study
According to a news release from the U.S. Geological Survey, “the study analyzed 37 countries for several population factors” and “showed that countries where Toxoplasma gondii is common also had higher incidences of adult brain cancers than in those countries where the organism is not common.”

“The study does not prove that Toxoplasma gondii directly causes cancer in humans, and the study does not imply that an infected person automatically has high cancer risk,” says [Kevin] Lafferty, who is based at the USGS Western Ecological Research Center. “However, we do know that Toxoplasma gondii behaves in ways that could stimulate cells towards cancerous states, so the discovery of this correlation offers a new hypothesis for an infectious link to cancer.”

According to the study’s abstract (I’ve been unable to access the paper), the authors took into account several factors:

“We corrected reports of incidence for national gross domestic product because wealth probably increases the ability to detect cancer. We also included gender, cell phone use and latitude as variables in our initial models. Prevalence of T. gondii explained 19 per cent of the residual variance in brain cancer incidence after controlling for the positive effects of gross domestic product and latitude among nations.” [1]

It will be interesting to compare—once I’m able to review the study in detail—these findings with those published earlier this year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (a collaborative effort involving several agencies, including, as it happens, the CDC):

“The relatively low variation in incidence and death rates for cancer of the brain and [other nervous system] nationally and internationally suggests that environmental risk factors do not play a major role in this disease. In fact, other than hereditary tumor syndromes and increased familial risk without a known syndrome, the only known modifiable causal risk factor for brain tumors is exposure to ionizing radiation.” [2, in-line citations removed for readability]

Correlation ≠ Causation
To illustrate the critical difference between correlation and causation, author Charles Seife uses the dramatic example of the mid-1990s NutraSweet scare—which, incredibly, was also linked brain cancer (falsely, as it turns out).

“Lots of people… don’t eat foods that contain the artificial sweetener NutraSweet for fear of developing brain cancer,” writes Seife, tracing the mythical connection to “a bunch of psychiatrists led by Washington University’s John Olney.”

“These scientists noticed that there was an alarming rise in brain tumor rates about three or four years after NutraSweet was introduced in the market.

Aha! The psychiatrists quickly came to the obvious conclusion: NutraSweet is causing brain cancer! They published their findings in a peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology, and their paper immediately grabbed headlines around the world.

But a closer look at the data shows how unconvincing the link really is. Sure, NutraSweet consumption was going up at the same time brain tumor rates were, but a lot of other things were on the rise, too, such as cable TV, Sony Walkmen, Tom Cruise’s career. When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, government spending increased just as dramatically as brain tumor rates… The correlation between government overspending and brain cancer is just as solid as the link between NutraSweet and brain cancer.” [3]

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

Given the numerous factors and interrelationships involved in developing brain cancer—some of which, of course, we don’t even know—Hutchins’ eager indictment of cats is, at the very least, premature. In fact, Hutchins is going to have a difficult time connecting the dots in light of recent research.

More Cats, Less Brain Cancer
If brain cancer is more common where T. gondii is more common, then one might expect rates of brain cancer to increase over time as the prevalence of T. gondii increases. Which would seem to be the case here in the U.S., if cats are indeed the culprit.

According to data compiled last year in Conservation Biology, the population of pet cats tripled over the past 40 years, from approximately 31 million in 1971 to more than 90 million today. [4]

So what about brain cancer?

In 2006, researchers using data from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program for 1973–2001 were surprised to find incident rates decreasing. Following an increase of 1.68 percent between 1973 and 1987, the incident rate began to drop off by 0.44 percent annually (as indicated in the chart below; EAPC = estimated annual percentage of change).

“The cause for this decline,” suggest the study’s authors, “is unclear because of the paucity of definitive knowledge on the risk factors of brain cancer, but solace can be taken from the fact that brain cancers are not rising in this era of increasing environmental toxic exposures.” [5]

More recently, a report published by the Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States (PDF) found “no statistically significant trend in incidence rates of all primary brain tumors from 2004 through 2007.” [6]

•     •     •

Lafferty and his colleagues concede that their work is “correlational,” a jumping-off point for further investigation. Again, I haven’t been able to read the paper yet, but I’m skeptical that their line of inquiry is headed anywhere productive. Cast a net as wide as they did—surveying the prevalence of T. gondii and incidence of brain cancer across 37 countries—and you’re bound to catch something.

Of course, something is all Michael Hutchins needs for his witch-hunt.

Hutchins refers to piles of evidence without taking the trouble to examine any of it, simply ignoring what doesn’t fit neatly into his narrative—declining brain cancer rates in the U.S., for example. Or, some rather interesting comments from Lafferty himself (which, strangely, were omitted from USGS’s news release, but were mentioned by several other news outlets, including LiveScience and Fox News):

“…one shouldn’t be panicking about owning cats… The risk factors for getting Toxoplasma are really hygiene and eating undercooked meat. One should be more concerned about those than pets.”

That sounds familiar, too. It’s the same advice the CDC provides on its Website.

Literature Cited
1. Thomas, F., et al., “Incidence of adult brain cancers is higher in countries where the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii is common.” Biology Letters. 2011.

2. Kohler, B.A., et al., “Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1975, Featuring Tumors of the Brain and Other Nervous System.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2011.

3. Seife, C., Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. 2010: Viking Adult.

4. 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.

5. Deorah, S., et al., “Trends in brain cancer incidence and survival in the United States: Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program, 1973 to 2001.” Neurological Focus. 2006. 20(April): p. E1.

6. n.a., CBTRUS Statistical Report: Primary Brain and Central Nervous System Tumors Diagnosed in the United States in 2004-2007. 2011, Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States: Hinsdale, IL.

Garden Tool

The timing was uncanny. Four days after my post “Inside Job,” Washington Post columnist Adrian Higgins reported incorrectly that two-thirds of pet cats are allowed outdoors. Higgins doesn’t mention where he got that figure, but considering the sources he used for the piece—including the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), The Wildlife Society, and Dauphiné and Cooper’s 2009 Partners in Flight paper—it’s not hard to sort out.

Ditto for his matter-of-fact assertion that “the cumulative effect on birds is significant, according to experts.” Higgins relies on Dauphiné and Cooper for estimates of both the number of “stray and out-and-out feral cats” (“there may be as many as 100 million such cats in the country”) and birds killed by free-roaming cats (“at least one billion birds are killed by cats annually, ‘and the actual number is probably much higher.’”). [1]

Higgins’ column appeared exactly one week after the release of Charles Seife’s book Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. Proofiness, writes Seife, is “the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true—even when it’s not.” [2]

Many—perhaps most—of the scientific claims made by opponents of free-roaming cats/TNR are textbook cases of proofiness. Nevertheless, they are often accepted at face value by the media, which—simply by passing them along for public consumption—gives these assertions unwarranted credibility.

Pete Marra
The central character in Higgins’ story is Pete Marra, a fellow gardener and a research associate at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Marra’s name rang a bell.

Sure enough, this is the same Peter P. Marra who, along with nine others (including Dauphiné and Cooper), authored a comment in Conservation Biology earlier this year, entitled “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” (the publication of which prompted a series of Vox Felina posts, beginning with this one).

What Marra and his co-authors penned is an unapologetic call to action:

Proponents of TNR are well organized and push for TNR-friendly policies in communities and shelters around the United States, often with little opposition from the conservation biology and wildlife ecology communities… Regardless of why the scientific and management communities have remained relatively silent, it is imperative that we now begin speaking out. [2]

As I have argued, the silence that so frustrates Marra and the others may simply reflect the fact that so much of the work he and his colleagues defend is largely indefensible. Indeed, “What Conservation Biologists Can Do” is, in its own way, representative. Consider the authors’ comparison of TNR with hoarding:

The animal welfare community opposes “cat hoarding,” whereby people care for more pets than they can adequately support, because it is considered inhumane. Trap-neuter-return is essentially cat hoarding without walls. Considering that most communities have laws banning animal hoarding, we should consider the same standard for outdoor cats as those that are in a person’s home. [3]

But their interest in using the law to put a stop to TNR doesn’t end there. Marra and his colleagues continue:

…it may become incumbent upon us to take legal action against colonies and colony managers, particularly in areas that provide habitat for migratory birds or endangered species. [3]

The authors quote a 2003 article written by Linda Winter, the former director of the ABC’s Cats Indoors! campaign, for the Hawaii Audubon Society newsletter:

“…releasing cats into the wild and supporting feral cat colonies is a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act, as well as laws prohibiting animal abandonment.” (her emphasis, not mine) [4]

As a frequent critic of Winter’s writing, I was eager to read the newsletter (which can be downloaded here). It turns out Winter was referring to a 2003 report submitted by Pamela Jo Hatley—then a student in the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law and part of its University of Florida Conservation Clinic—to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Winter—and by extension, Marra and his colleagues—are unambiguous on this point: TNR is a clear violation of both the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act. But, of course, law students don’t make legal decisions; that’s what we have courts for (which might explain why, years later, Travis Longcore and his Urban Wildlands Group took a rather different approach in their TNR-related lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles).

But back to Hatley—there’s another familiar name. In fact, I’d seen it right beside Marra’s earlier this year. See, Pamela Jo Hatley is one of the 10 co-authors of “What Conservation Biologists Can Do.”

So why didn’t the authors just cite Hatley’s work directly, rather than turning to Winter’s version of it? Simply put, Winter’s version is a better story—short and sweet, and brimming with certitude.

But if Marra and the others—Hatley included—wanted to distance themselves from the original, it’s understandable. Though her legal arguments are somewhat compelling, Hatley’s report is a minefield of misrepresentations, flawed estimates, and unsubstantiated claims where the science is concerned (e.g., extrapolating the Wisconsin Study to Florida, and then suggesting that “the actual number [of birds killed by cats in the state] may be much higher” [5]). In other words, more proofiness.

Its title, Feral Cat Colonies in Florida: The Fur and the Feathers Are Flying, is a good indication of how seriously the report—ostensibly a formal document submitted to a federal agency—should be taken.

Getting Dirty
To read Higgins’ column in the Post, one gets the idea that he and Marra are merely fellow gardeners, perhaps having bumped into each other at the local nursery or hardware store. And that’s where the story began. It could be.

But there’s a sentence in “What Conservation Biologists Can Do” that’s been bothering me ever since I read Higgins’ piece:

Conservation biologists have just as much opportunity to make their points at local meetings, through the news media, and at outreach events as do TNR proponents. (emphasis mine) [2]

I have no idea whether Higgins and Marra knew each other before Higgins began work on his column, or how Higgins feels about cats. And I’m not one to go in for conspiracy theories, either.

What I am sure of is that Higgins—as a journalist—should have done his homework. He did not. (To be fair, Higgins did speak with Alley Cat Allies; but “equal time” is a poor substitute for accuracy.) And the consequences of his carelessly scattering a few figures around a column devoted to gardening are considerable: the seeds of proofiness!

Maybe readers don’t expect Higgins to know (or care, even) how many free-roaming cats there are in the U.S. Or how much time pet cats spend outdoors. Still, though, Higgins is an avid gardener—he, of all people, should be able to recognize bullshit.

*     *     *

SPECIAL THANKS to Louise Holton, founder of Alley Cat Rescue, who brought the Washington Post article (along with countless other news items over the past few months!) to my attention. She and Maggie Funkhouser, ACR’s Director of Communications and Public Relations, have become invaluable resources.

Literature Cited
1. Higgins, A., Bird lovers see roaming cats as a major threat to many species, in The Washington Post. 2010: Washington, DC.

2. Seife, C., Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. 2010: Viking Adult.

3. 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.

4. Winter, L., “Popoki and Hawai’i’s Native Birds.” ‘Elepaio: Journal of the Hawaii Audubon Society. 2003. 63(6).

5. Hatley, P.J., Feral Cat Colonies in Florida: The Fur and the Feathers Are Flying. 2003, University of Florida Conservation Clinic: Gainsville, FL.