A parasite is an organism that lives off another organism such as an animal or a human (or both). There are many different types of parasites from many different sources. Today, I’d like to talk about one particular parasite—Toxoplasmosis gondii. If you have ever been pregnant, you may be familiar with T. gondii. Pregnant women are cautioned against tending to cats and changing cat litter during pregnancy due to the risk of harmful effects to the fetus when this parasite, found in cats, is contracted during pregnancy.

Up to one-third of people carry T. gondii, previously thought to exist in a harmless dormant phase in most people (with the exception of being contracted during pregnancy). A recent study published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry is turning that idea on its head, however. The study found that people who tested positive for T. gondii were seven times more likely to attempt suicide when compared to people who did not harbor the parasite. This study actually builds on a previous study with the same finding.

Before you try to find your cat a new home, it’s important to know that most people who carry the parasite will not attempt suicide. Ninety percent of people who do attempt suicide also have a diagnosed psychiatric disorder. In those people, screening for the T. gondii parasite may be helpful to detect people most at risk of suicide. Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia have previously been linked to T. gondii infection, highlighting the importance of further study of this common parasite in people with these conditions.

Authors of the study suspect that inflammation in the brain caused by the parasite may be what triggers the suicide attempts. Underlying inflammation is turning out to be the cause of a wide array of health conditions, microbial infections being one main cause of this inflammation. (Poor diet is another main cause, but that’s another topic.)

If you have a psychiatric disorder and you have been exposed to cats, consider talking to your doctor about testing for T. gondii to rule out an increased risk of suicide. If you do test positive, you will want to get the right professional support, as well as reduce inflammation with proper diet and nutrition.