London, Feb 22: Cat ownership during pregnancy or childhood may not pose a direct risk for psychotic symptoms, according to a new study that casts doubt over suggestions that people who grow up with felines are at higher risk of mental illness.
Recent research has suggested that cat ownership might contribute to some mental disorders, because cats are the primary host of the common parasite Toxoplasma Gondii (T Gondii), itself linked to mental health problems such as schizophrenia.
However, the new study by researchers at University College London (UCL) in the UK suggests that cat ownership in pregnancy and childhood does not play a role in developing psychotic symptoms during adolescence.
The study looked at nearly 5,000 people born in 1991 or 1992 who were followed-up until the age of 18. The researchers had data on whether the household had cats while the mother was pregnant and when the children were growing up.
"The message for cat owners is clear: there is no evidence that cats pose a risk to children's mental health," said lead author Francesca Solmi from UCL.
"In our study, initial unadjusted analyses suggested a small link between cat ownership and psychotic symptoms at age 13, but this turned out to be due to other factors.
"Once we controlled for factors such as household over-crowding and socioeconomic status, the data showed that cats were not to blame. Previous studies reporting links between cat ownership and psychosis simply failed to adequately control for other possible explanations," said Solmi.
The new study was significantly more reliable than previous research in this area since the team looked at families who were followed up regularly for almost 20 years.
This is much more reliable than methods used in previous studies, which asked people with and without mental health problems to remember details about their childhood.
Such accounts are more vulnerable to errors in recall which can lead to spurious findings.