Cat parasites, the kind found on the poop buried in litter boxes, poses a serious and widespread public health hazard, officials are saying this week.
Scientists studying an infectious parasite called Toxoplasma gondii say they were surprised to find just how widespread the bug’s eggs are. Two researchers at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey and Dr. Robert H. Yolken, found that the parasite’s eggs are more common that previously estimated. They found as many as 434 eggs in a square foot of soil, and it only takes one to cause an infection.
That means cat owners likely have the dangerous parasite climbing around near litter boxes and sand boxes.
“It may be a much bigger problem than we realize,” said Torrey, a psychiatrist and head of the Stanley Medical Research Institute in Chevy Chase, Md.
The dangers of T. gondii are well known. Health officials have for years warned pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems to avoid cleaning the litter box because of the dangerous infections the cat parasites can cause.
But now Torrey says the health risks from cat parasites could extend even further, with a link found between high levels of T. gondii antibodies and conditions including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
“Some of us suspect that some of the important transmission may occur in childhood,” Torrey told NBC News.
Another study from last year produced similar findings. Researchers in Denmark found that women infected with T. gondii could be at a higher risk of suicide. And the higher the level of the cat parasites in the woman’s body, the higher the risk of a suicide by violent means, including leaping from a tall building or suicide by gunshot.
Torrey said the risk from the cat parasites is growing as the feline population booms. Every day there are close to one million cats in the United States that can poop up to 50 million parasitic eggs each, and Torrey noted the parasites are particularly difficult to kill.