A girl and a Scottish Straight kitten by Yuri Tuchkov via Shutterstock

That can't be fur real! A new study has come out suggesting that pets might be lowering school children's grades, and not just because they're cute and distracting them from homework. 

Virtually all warm-blooded mammals are capable of hosting a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii—humans included. In fact, studies suggest that anywhere between 30-50% of the global population have been exposed to this parasite. Yikes. However, the primary mammalian culprit that harbors this parasite is cats. And it turns out that the parasite has a couple of tricks up its sleeve to return to its favorite host.

The parasite is known to affect the behavior of infected animals. A study in 2013 reported that rodents infected with the parasite completely lost their instinctual fear of cats. The rodents had a fear of feline urine before infection but lost their terror of kitty pee after being infected with the parasite. The effect seemed to be permanent as well, even after cysts subsided or brain inflammation died down.

So, this is a parasite that turns mice into easy pickings for cats. The cat eats the mouse and ingests the parasite, completing the cycle. Considering the rather alarming effects in mice, it doesn't seem completely unreasonable that the parasite has detrimental effects on human brains too.

Researchers from the University of Iowa and Florida International University have conducted a study examining how the Toxoplasma gondii affects test scores in school children aged 12 to 16 years old. The test scores included math, reading, visuospatial reasoning and verbal memory. 

Children who tested positive for the parasite were associated with lower reading scores. This could be because their kitties are sitting in front of their books in a bid for attention, or it could be that the parasite is somehow affecting school-aged children's reading and memory ability. 

Image Credit: Africa Studio via Shutterstock

So, is there a cure? Well, not exactly, but don't lament just yet. It has been noted that a vitamin E serum can modify the relationship between the parasite and the host's memory deficiency.

We can get infected with the parasite with the help of our furry friends; cats, dogs and any other mammal you're happy to have trotting around the house could all be culprits. The most common way that humans catch the parasite is by ingesting contaminated food or water—so make sure you wash your hands after handling the kitty litter tray!

More research needs to be done, but in the meantime we'd recommend not eating any of your pets' poop. 

[Via ParasitologyPublic Library of Science]

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