Toxoplasma gondii is the name of one of the most prominent parasites to exist on Earth today. It has the ability to control the minds of certain animals by manipulating genes, and it’s estimated to have infected about 11 percent of Americans (and half of all people across the world).
This parasite is somewhat mysterious and truly bizarre after researchers and scientists have worked diligently to understand how the parasite is capable of manipulating its host to the point of putting itself in harm’s way. Also, the parasite is only able to reproduce in cats, meaning many people get infected when handling cat feces or eating the undercooked meat of an animal that consumed the parasite at some point.
What scientists have discovered is that the parasite turns certain genes off and certain genes on, producing an algorithm that essentially tells its host to ignore red flags while accepting or even encouraging others. For example, a rat has evolved to smell a feline’s scent and immediately take action to avoid getting eaten. But a rat infected with this parasite would ignore signals from the brain telling it to flee and in some cases even be attracted to the feline’s scent.
The New York Times describes this process as being similar to someone playing the piano. A body without the parasite will play a certain tune, but once it becomes infected, it starts playing a different tune (with the animal’s genes being the different keys used to produce it).
Most adult humans will never experience symptoms from being infected by the parasite, as our immune systems handle it just fine. And symptoms from the parasite manifest in a variety of ways, from not-so-bad to severe. You may have swollen lymph glands and muscle pains that last months, or in the worst of cases, experience damage to vital organs such as the brain or eyes.
Generally, it is only a huge risk factor for infants or folks whose immune systems have become weakened or damaged. Changes in vision, such as reduced vision or blurred vision, accompanied by pain is cause for concern and doctors recommend getting tested for the parasite.
If you own a cat and have become pregnant or you have a weakened immune system, it is best to take a few precautionary measures to ensure minimal exposure to the parasite.
Changing your cat’s litter box on a daily basis is step one. However, if you can avoid changing the litter box completely, that is recommended. Wearing gloves when doing so and washing your hands afterwards is also recommended. Other things you can do is keep your cat indoors, try not to get any new cats (stray or otherwise) and try to feed your cats only dry food or well-cooked table foods. Raw and undercooked meats only exacerbate the problem.