MIAMI (CBS4) – Something commonly carried by your pets has the potential to control your mind.
It is a parasite that multiplies inside a cat and has already infected 60 million Americans.
Max the cat from Miami Lakes could be a carrier.
“I do love my cats. I am obsessed with my cats,” said Anna Carabeo who admits Max is a part of her family. “They are. They totally are and you think about them all the time.”
The bad news for Carabeo is that Max could be the carrier of a tiny parasite called Toxoplasma Gondii, which if passed on to humans can control our brain.
The parasite reproduces inside a cat’s intestines. Infected cats then excrete millions of microscopic eggs called Oocysts in the soil, in water, and in the cat litter.
That’s why pregnant women are told not to handle litter boxes. People who are infected with the parasite and show no signs.
“So it’s our immune system that really helps to control the parasite keep it in check,” said Dr. Patricia Conrad.
But now there’s growing evidence, the parasite can creep into your brain, and manipulate your behavior and cause schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
The work of Czech scientist Dr. Jaroslav Flegr takes it a step further.
Flegr discovered how people infected with the parasite develop subtle personality changes. The organism appears to slow down reaction times and cause individuals to take more risks like crossing the street even when there is a car coming.
“I must admit I was very surprised,” said Dr. Flegr.
But why would a parasite steer you into oncoming traffic, potentially killing you?
“It wants to survive and it’s very good at it,” said Dr. Conrad who is an expert in Toxoplasma at the U.C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Her team studies the parasite in wild and domestic animals.
Conrad said since the parasite ultimately needs to get back into a cat to reproduce, studies show how it performs a pretty nifty trick. If mice are infected with Toxo the parasite goes to their brain and it alters their behavior.
So, instead of running away from cats, mice will flock to cat urine. The cat then eats the mouse and the parasite gets back into the cat and reproduces.
So how does that affect us?
Once upon a time we were potential prey for bigger cats which might explain why the parasite slows us down. It wants to get back into a bigger cat.
In the meantime, as a precaution, should we get rid of cats like Max?
“No, no, they are way too cute,” said Carabeo.
Experts say to protect yourself and your cat, all you have to do is keep the cat indoors.
If you have an outdoor cat, make sure it is fed very well and gets regular checkups.