Cats carry an infectious parasite called T. gondii. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that some 60 million Americans have T. gondii.
Studies have also linked toxoplasmosis with a range of human mental diseases, including schizophrenia, bipolar disease, obsessive compulsive disorder and even clumsiness. However, they ultimately learned that these problems were actually caused by other factors than the animal.
Toxoplasmosis can be contracted through undercooked meat and contaminated water, but it can also be contracted through contact with feces containing the parasite.
Solmi says previous studies which reported such a link failed to control for other such possible explanations.
The population looked at was larger than for previous studies, although it was not able to measure directly whether people were infected by the parasite.
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These limitations included studies in which researchers asked people with and without mental health problems to remember details about their childhood, which could have led to errors in recall.
In the new study, the researchers analyzed information from almost 5,000 children who were born in England in 1991 and 1992, and followed them until they were 18 years old. At ages 13 and 18 years, the children were brought into clinics to be evaluated for psychotic-like symptoms.
"The message for cat owners is clear: there is no evidence that cats pose a risk to children's mental health", says lead author Dr Francesca Solmi (UCL Psychiatry). But after examining this "small link", researchers from the University College London don't believe cat ownership directly leads to psychotic symptoms.
Dr. Solmi added, "Once we controlled for factors such as household over-crowding and socioeconomic status, the data showed that cats were not to blame". A new study of about 5,000 children in the United Kingdom found no evidence that cat ownership during gestation or childhood was associated with psychotic experiences that can be early signs of mental illness - such as hallucinations or delusions of being spied on - when they were teenagers.
But UCL researchers say prior research linking cat ownership to mental illness was seriously flawed. Pregnant women should still follow healthy guidelines from their doctor when it comes to dealing with such things as soiled kitty litter, but in general having a cat does not increase the likelihood of mental health problems.
While this finding is reassuring, there is evidence linking exposure to T. Gondii in pregnancy to a risk of miscarriage and stillbirth, or health problems in the baby.