About 15 years ago, evolutionary biologist Jaroslav Flegr began to notice dramatic changes in himself and upon investigation, theorized that a tiny parasite that he caught from his cat was subtly manipulating his personality, causing him to behave in strange, often self-destructive ways. And if it was doing this to him, it was doing the same thing to other cat owners (but only if your cat is a "mouser").

The parasite is excreted by cats in their feces, and is the microbe that causes toxoplasmosis, which is the reason pregnant women are told to avoid emptying the litter box, because she can transfer it to her fetus, causing brain damage or even death. However, it’s always been assumed that healthy children and adults, when infected, experience nothing more than a few flu-like symptoms–UNTIL NOW.

Because the way this parasite alters the brain can lead to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia, Flegr thinks it’s STILL killing people. In the Atlantic, Kathleen McAuliffe quotes him as saying, "Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year.

"There is strong psychological resistance to the possibility that human behavior can be influenced by some stupid parasite. Nobody likes to feel like a puppet."

The cat catches the parasite by killing a rodent and eating that is infected with it. Once inside a human host, the parasite needs to get back into the cat, which is the only place where it can sexually reproduce. This is when the behavioral manipulation may start.

The parasite affects men and women differently. Compared with uninfected men, males who have the parasite are more introverted, suspicious, clueless about other people’s opinions of them, and are inclined to break rules–all indications of elevated testosterone levels (which makes them more attractive to women). But infected women act in exactly the opposite way: They are more outgoing, trusting, image-conscious, and rule-abiding than their uninfected sisters.

They’re also more suicidal: In a 2011 study of 20 European countries, Flegr discovered that the national suicide rate among women increased in direct proportion to the prevalence of the latent Toxo infection in each nation’s female population.

Different countries are also affected differently. The French have infection rates as high as 55%, while only 10-20% of Americans have it. French cat lovers may let their cats leave the house more often than Americans do (in many places in the US, it’s as illegal to let a cat roam as it is to let a dog off the leash). Indoor cats are no threat, because they don’t carry the parasite, which originates with rodents.

French seem to have a more active sex life than Americans do–thanks to that parasite?

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The expert on cattle and cat mutilations–and all sorts of other mysterious events–is science reporter Linda Howe (NOTE: Subscribers can still listen to this show), and she’ll be doing another GREAT REPORT at our Dreamland Festival in May–Don’t miss it!

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