Cats. Many people love them – and why not? They can be enormously affectionate. In America, they are more popular pets than dogs. They enjoy playing with toys, particularly those that resemble prey. Is there anything cuter than cat videos? Not much.
And yet, cats are a huge problem. The biggest problem is feral cats, those that have escaped or been released into the wild. They prey on smaller animals and particularly birds, killing billions every year.
This might be okay if they killed birds and rodents we don’t like, but cats also kill bluebirds and rabbits and other small creatures. They don’t limit their destruction to species we find unappealing.
But there’s another largely unknown problem with cats as well – toxoplasma gondii – a parasite that lives in cat excrement. These parasites can only reproduce in the bodies of domestic cats. When the cats defecate, the eggs of the parasite can get passed on to other creatures, even humans.
That’s why pregnant women are warned to stay away from stray kittens and not to change kitty litter or cat bedding. Toxoplasmosis can lead to fetal abnormalities. In people who are infected with the disease, researchers have noticed behavioral differences. Men are more prone to road rage. Women are more likely to engage in promiscuous behavior. Both are more susceptible to traffic accidents, either because of impulsivity or decreased reaction time.
And it’s not just people who are at risk. Mice and rats infected with the parasite will approach cats as if aroused by them, greatly increasing their chances of being killed so that the parasite can continue to spread, infecting others. A recent study even showed that toxoplasma gondii is responsible for the deaths of a number of monk seals in Hawaii.
The good news is that toxoplasma gondii is treatable with antibiotics. The bad news is that it can be hard to detect because its symptoms are not very noticeable. And how do you get antibiotics to an endangered seal in the wild anyway?
Toxoplasma gondii is on the rise because of global warming, which allows the parasite to survive the warmer wetter winters we are increasingly experiencing. So what’s the solution? It’s quite simple. Feral cats should be killed – humanely. People who own cats as pets should never let them outside without a leash. They should never be allowed to roam free and hunt.
If people take responsibility for their cats, this is one problem we can easily solve.
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