Cats Blamed for Memory Decline in Senior Citizens

A wild bird advocacy group promotes story linking declining memory with toxoplasmosis infection, and points to free-roaming cats as the source.

The American Bird Conservancy today reported on a scientific study that linked toxoplasmosis with decreased memory in older adults. Reports estimate that toxoplasmosis affects one third of the world population, and ABC attributes most infections to free-roaming cats.

Find out myths and facts of toxoplasmosis >>

“When people hear about cats and toxoplasmosis they should see a red flag,” says Becky Robinson, president of feral cat advocate group Alley Cat Allies. “The Center for Disease Control’s Toxoplasmosis FAQ doesn’t even say anything about cats in its prevention section. It’s all basic food safety — cook meat, wash your utensils, wash your hands.”

Visit the CDC’s Toxoplasmosis FAQ page >>

The study says toxoplasmosis-infected seniors “showed lower performance in the verbal memory test, both regarding immediate recall and delayed recognition.” ABC has previously promoted stories that malign free-roaming cats as the main source of wild bird deaths. Robinson and other cat supporters frequently respond with pleas to stay factual.

See ways bird groups have targeted cats in the past >>

“If a parasitic infection can cause brain damage, memory loss, schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts and death, wouldn’t you want to know the most effective ways to prevent transmission? You become infected by swallowing infective T. gondii eggs. No one would intentionally handle cat feces with their bare hands and then put their hands in their mouth or handle food without washing their hands in between, but that’s what a person would have to do to contract the disease from a cat,” says Susan Logan, Cat Fancy editor.

“Here’s one of the most important facts to remember to prevent toxoplasmosis infection: Toxoplasmosis is not an airborne illness. Muscle tissue from any exposed mammal carries the parasite, therefore eating raw or undercooked meat is a much more likely source of infection for humans.” Logan continues by saying “simply hand-washing and common-sense hygiene practices” are enough to fend off infection.

Some cat advocates are troubled by the continuous campaign to blame feral cats for problems they haven’t necessarily caused.

“Clearly what this study, which has nothing directly to do with birds, demonstrates is the American Bird Conservancy is targeting cats,” says Steve Dale, radio host and syndicated columnist who writes about pets. “This study offers the possible suggestion that it is conceivable there could be a link between Alzheimer’s or dementia and toxoplasma gondii – but doesn’t demonstrate that there is a correlation. In other words, there’s no real indication of cause and effect.

“I do share ABC’s concerns about the welfare of birds, and hope the organization will become equally as vehement to express their outrage over habitat destruction and pollution, the real primarily explanations for the decline of too many birds.” 

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