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Cat owners could be at higher risk of schizophrenia, study suggests, but more research is needed

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Cuddling with a cat or kitten might seem therapeutic, but a new study suggests contact with these animals could have adverse mental health effects down the road.

Research published in Schizophrenia Bulletin found that people who are exposed to cats may have more than double the chances of developing schizophrenia and other similar mental disorders later in life.

Australian researchers from the University of Queensland conducted a systematic review of 17 studies performed in 11 countries between Jan. 1, 1980, and May 30, 2023.

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The study data was pulled from several databases, including Medline, Embase, CINAHL, Web of Science and other publications.

All the studies focused on participants who owned cats in their first 25 years of life and experienced schizophrenia-related outcomes, according to the researchers.

A new study suggests that being exposed to cats early in life could have adverse mental health effects down the road. (iStock)

Schizophrenia is a mental illness that affects a person’s thoughts, behaviors and feelings, as defined by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Psychotic symptoms can include hallucinations, delusions and thought disorders. 

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Those with the disorder may also experience cognitive challenges, loss of motivation, withdrawal from social activities, difficulty showing emotions and an overall lack of functioning.

“Based on past studies, there is evidence linking cat ownership and an increased risk of subsequent schizophrenia,” study author Dr. John McGrath, a psychiatrist at Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland, St Lucia, Australia, told Fox News Digital.

“We had an open mind, and we reported the published findings.”

Young girl with cat

Research published in Schizophrenia Bulletin found that people who own cats may have more than double the chance of developing schizophrenia and other similar mental disorders later in life. (iStock)

Previous research linking cat exposure to schizophrenia risk has focused on Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii), a parasite that can cause a feline disease called toxoplasmosis.

Separate studies have identified a “modest to large association” between toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia.

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The study did have some limitations, McGrath acknowledged.

“While observational epidemiology cannot prove this link, this topic warrants further, more detailed research,” he said.

“I was disappointed that there were not more highly quality — i.e., more rigorous — studies in our review.”

“Schizophrenia is an incredibly complex disorder, and this study identifies one potential risk factor that needs to be understood in a broader context.”

Schizophrenia is a “poorly understood group of disorders,” McGrath noted.

“We need to invest in more research that looks at potential risk factors. There is much work to be done.”

‘No need to panic’

Dr. Zachary Ginder, a psychological consultant and doctor of clinical psychology at Pine Siskin Consulting, LLC in Riverside, California, was not involved in the study but commented on the findings.

Woman mental disorder

Schizophrenia is a mental illness that affects a person’s thoughts, behaviors and feelings. Psychotic symptoms can include hallucinations, delusions and thought disorders.  (iStock)

“It is important to keep a level head in consideration of these findings, and there is no need to panic if you own a cat and have children or are thinking about starting a family,” Ginder told Fox News Digital.

“Schizophrenia is an incredibly complex disorder, and this study identifies one potential risk factor that needs to be understood in a broader context. It would likely be premature to make strong recommendations about cat ownership solely based on these findings.”

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Although a relationship has been established between early-life cat exposure and schizophrenia, Ginder emphasized that this does not necessarily indicate that exposure causes the disorder. 

cat at the vet

“A lot more research” is needed to better understand these relationships — “accounting for a myriad of potential confounding factors and exploring underlying biological mechanisms,” said one psychological consultant and doctor of clinical psychology. (iStock)

“There is a lot that we still don’t know, and it is important to highlight that not all people who are exposed to cats or infected with the parasite develop mental health issues, and not all people with schizophrenia have had cat exposure,” he told Fox News Digital.

“While this parasite may play a role, it’s likely part of a complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors.” 

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Ginder echoed the researchers’ comments that “a lot more research” is needed to better understand these relationships — “accounting for a myriad of potential confounding factors and exploring underlying biological mechanisms.”

“These findings just give us another piece of an incredibly complex puzzle.”

For more Health articles, visit www.foxnews.com/health.



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