This Just In: Your Cat Will NOT Give You Brain Cancer

Cats may be frustrating sometimes, they may be sassy, they may be determined to wreak havoc around the house, but one thing they won’t do, apparently, is increase your risk of cancer.
Publish date:
August 22, 2012
Cancer, cats, science

Remember the big to-do last year when some French researchers had the audacity to suggest there was a link between cats and cancer, based on the fact that cats can carry Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that may be connected to brain cancer? Or maybe you don’t. Anyway, last year, the media basically reported that a bunch of French researchers had said that cats cause brain cancer and quite a brouhaha resulted.

As if cats didn’t already have a bad rep for posing a potential risk to pregnant people: if you’re pregnant, you shouldn’t be around a litter box, because you could pick up the parasite, and that would be bad news bears. But I promise, cats themselves are okay. Just not, you know, their poop. Which means, yes, you finally have a license to make someone else clean the litter box for nine months. Milk it, people.

But, when it comes to brain cancer, it turns out that the French research may not have been so accurate. Some moggy loving scientists in Britain took a sample of over 600,000 British women over the age of 50, and followed them over the course of three years. Long-term studies like this can provide a lot of valuable information because you get a chance to see how health changes over time in real time, rather than getting a snapshot or a retrospective look back.

What they found was that while 18% of the cohort studied owned at least one cat, no one in the cat-owning population had a greater risk of developing brain cancer. Despite the fact that they theoretically had a higher exposure to T. gondii, their brains apparently escaped unscathed from the evil influences of felines. So much for the claim that close association with cats can be linked to a higher chance of developing brain cancer.

That’s because the most worrying sources of exposure to the parasite don’t actually come from cats. While some cats do carry it and it can be a concern for people who handle cat feces, which is why you should always wash your hands after engaging in litter-box-related activities (but you knew that anyway, right?), undercooked meat and mishandled food is a much bigger worry. As is, in some regions, unclean water.

Cats, in other words, aren’t really the vector most public health officials are worried about – although it IS a good idea to avoid dumping cat poop into waterways, since it can contaminate the water supply and hurt sea otters and Monk seals. And we like creatures of the sea. Well, I do.

Cats may be frustrating sometimes, they may be sassy, they may be determined to wreak havoc around the house, but one thing they won’t do, apparently, is increase your risk of cancer.

Phew. Now I can go back to yelling at Loki and Leila for not being friends, instead of seething with quiet resentment about my chances of cat-related brain cancer. Of course, given my family medical history and my own history of living on top of/next to Superfund sites, I think the potential culprits behind future cancers are pretty obvious, but it’s always nice to rule out a potential cancer risk factor.

But, it gets better. Some recent research has suggested that not only is the cat/brain cancer connection bunk, but having pets in general, including cats, can actually be beneficial to your health. Early exposure to pets can help strengthen your immune system, for example, and a NIH study found a reduced incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among people with pets. That’s right: pets can actually reduce the incidence of at least one form of cancer. Amazeballs1! [UGH -- Emily]

Furthermore, pets have demonstrated benefits for children with autism; and we’re talking specifically pets here, not emotional support or service animals. They can help kids develop social skills and feel more emotionally secure, and contribute to overall emotional development. I was going to say that cats are less pricey than therapy, but then I started looking through my vet bills, so let’s just say that cats are at least on-call all the time, unlike your therapist.

All of this means that something I’ve long suspected, that pets are actually good for your body and mind, is actually true. Much as I cringe to quote Ronald Reagan of all people, he allegedly once said “there’s nothing so good for the inside of a [person] as the outside of a horse,” and I’m inclined to agree, except I’d extend that to critters in general. Being around animals makes me feel more calm, grounded, and happy, and I’m glad to have science confirm that.

Pets, cats included, provide demonstrable emotional health benefits. In other words, far from making people crazypants (as reported in yet another misguided study last year), cats can actually be really helpful for people with mental illness or emotional dysregulation. Take THAT, cat-haters.

Can't have cats of your own? You can always play with shelter cats over a live cat-cam!

1. Let’s see if Emily catches that. Return