Cats and alterations in personality

‘If the mind is a machine, then anything can control it – anything, that is, that understands the code and has access to the machinery’

Let us take for example the orb spider. Typically, the orb spider weaves a web that is no less than an engineering marvel, a mosaic of spiral non-sticky web and a final sticky web line to hold the entire web together. It must be a matter of great pride for the spider to achieve such a feat in a matter of hours. However, these plans can be foiled by the Polysphincta gutfreundi, a small tropical wasp whose entire image is built on what it does to the orb-weaver spider. The female wasp lays an egg in the abdomen on the spider, after which a tiny larvae emerges out of it, deriving nutrition from its host’s body. However, that is not enough for the larva. The larva needs a safe spot to undergo metamorphosis and emerge a wasp, and what better than to use the extraordinary intellect of the spider in building itself a home. The larva imparts certain chemicals in the spider that makes it weave the web just a little differently. This “drugged” spider is under the influence of the larva, weaving to its tunes and constructing a web for the benefit of the larva. These webs are strong and specifically designed to keep the larva’s cocoon suspended and away from the sight of larger predators.

 

spiralorb

If the larva is removed from the spider’s body by human intervention, the spider lives and returns to its normal web-making abilities soon enough.

The rabies virus, too, evokes the feelings of rage in its host so that the host bites another living being, and transmits the virus to more hosts.

Such a parasite exists closer to home, and much more elusive than a rabies virus. Let us talk about the infamous Toxoplasma gondii.

This protozoan has a fairly complicated life cycle which begins inside a very common animal, and only inside this animal.

Cats.

Inside cats, the protozoan spends time reproducing and generally having a gala time, after which zygote-filled cysts are released along with the cat’s poo. From here on, it can go anywhere it wants – water, soil, food, other hosts, and even humans (but we will get to that later). Depending on who ingests this infection that is now free to roam the world, the infection is concentrated in various parts of the body. In pigs (if that is the intermediate host), they are mostly in the muscles, and in the case of rodents, they are mostly in the brain. Inside this intermediate host, the protozoan can’t really reproduce, so it yearns for a way out and into a cat again, where it can continue to reproduce more protozoa. However, this might not always be possible.

In rodents, this protozoan has evolutionarily built a great way of escaping. It has been proven, that rats infected with Toxoplasma doesn’t hate cats quite as much. In fact, the smell of cat’s urine even sexually arouses the rodent towards the source. It also makes the rodents wary of predators around it, and makes for very easy prey for cats. Most of what the rodents do after being infected is a way for the cat to devour the host, and as such makes it the protozoan’s doing. It can happily reproduce again in a cat’s body.

When the passage from the intermediate host to the cat’s body is not really possible, the protozoan just chills in the host’s body for as long as it can, which is generally the lifespan of the animal. Globally, 30-50% of humans are infected with Toxoplasma gondii. And it alters the personalities of humans too.

Other than decreased reaction times, the infected humans showed a lot of changes in terms of their behaviour. The interesting part is that it shows up differently in both men and women. To quote a study,


Compared with uninfected men, males who had the parasite were more introverted, suspicious, oblivious to other people’s opinions of them, and inclined to disregard rules. Infected women, on the other hand, presented in exactly the opposite way: they were more outgoing, trusting, image-conscious, and rule-abiding than uninfected women.

Compared with uninfected people of the same sex, infected men were more likely to wear rumpled old clothes; infected women tended to be more meticulously attired, many showing up for the study in expensive, designer-brand clothing. Infected men tended to have fewer friends, while infected women tended to have more. 


 

The underlying difference that the study found was how differently genders handled anxiety and emotional strain, and that is the kind of alteration that affected people when they were infected with the protozoan. Of course, if a woman is an introvert, Toxo would not turn her into a raving extrovert, just a little less of an introvert. But over a larger sample size, the evidence is shocking.

This brings up the question that if Toxo can affect and alter the personalities of so many without them even realizing it, would it affect the entire human culture as a whole? When 30-50% of the human population is affected by this protozoan, does it seep into the cultural and societal aspects of our lives?

References:

http://insider.si.edu/2010/01/drugged-spiders-web-spinning-may-hold-keys-to-determining-how-animal-behavior-is-controlled/

Flegr, J (Jan 2013). “Influence of latent Toxoplasmainfection on human personality, physiology and morphology: Pros and cons of the Toxoplasma-human model in studying the manipulation hypothesis”. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 216 (Pt 1): 127–33.

Webster JP, Kaushik M, Bristow GC, McConkey GA (Jan 2013). Toxoplasma gondii infection, from predation to schizophrenia: can animal behaviour help us understand human behaviour?”. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 216 (Pt 1): 99–112.

Lafferty, Kevin D. “Can the common brain parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, influence human culture?.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 273.1602 (2006): 2749-2755.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2015/10/29/parasite-human-brain-control/#.WFe4GqJ95MI

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/03/how-your-cat-is-making-you-crazy/308873/

Advertisements

The Jungle

Indecisiveness is a curse.

The lingering sense of doubt long after the damage has been done, has been the bane of my existence. I stare at the menu for a restaurant before I order home delivery, wondering if any of my friends were available to just decide what I was going to eat that day. Part of it is fear of consequence, obviously. If I have no say in a decision, I cannot be blamed for it. We can always choose to run away from responsibilities and make life easier. However, it won’t make life rich. Learning how to be able to take risks is what makes an adult; someone who can own up to the decisions they make and not be afraid of regret. There is a distinct sense of failure when we make a decision that might affect the way we are naturally built. It might make us realise that we were wrong about our own selves, and that is not a realisation anyone takes lightly. Either people continue to hide behind the mistakeful knowledge of the self, or realise that we learn something new everyday, even about our own selves who we have lived with our entire lives.

I had to make such a decision a while back.

I’ve always wanted pets, and thought I’d make a great pet owner. I loved animals, was willing to provide for them and take care of them, and make them a part of my life. This, of course, came with very little prior experience with pets because it never worked out within my family. It’s fair; I was really too young to be caring for a living being when no one else in my household really wanted to sign up for such a responsibility. There could never have been a right time.

But now I am own my own, living far away from my family and most of my friends. Entire weeks would go by before I found something I looked forward to with enthusiasm. Even the activities that pleased me, stopped pleasing me. I knew I had to make some changes in the way I was living my daily life. As a subscriber to numerous pages on Facebook that were owned by animal shelters, the idea didn’t take long to come across me. I looked longingly at the long list of puppies and kittens these shelters posted about, wondering what the lives of people who owned pets were like. These were animals who needed a home, something I was confident I could give to them.

My mind refused. My life was unstable. I had no idea how long I was going to stay in this city, and getting a pet meant a 20 year long commitment, and I cannot even look that far into the future of my own life. There was a three-day long trip coming up in less than a month. I had long working hours, and a stressful work life. I barely had time to take care of my nutrition. How could I take care of two living beings who relied on me to feed them, take them to the doctor, and other responsibilities I didn’t even know about? I told myself there would be another time for this desire of mine.

Fortunately, I already told some of my friends this was already on my mind. Everyone was supportive, and couldn’t understand why I was waiting so long. I told myself they didn’t know any better either – after all, no one had prior experience with pets. They were assuming they would have a furry little plaything, and had probably not given a lot of thought to how much care you need to take to ensure that their lives are comfortable. These aren’t humans beings; equipped with language and clarity of thought. I would decide how they lived their lives, how much they ate, what they ate, if they were sick or not. What if I didn’t realise if they were unhappy? I did not trust my instinct on this. I never have. I needed preparation.

And prepare I did. I read online about pets more than I ever have. I figured that cats are easier to maintain according to my work schedule, and after a few talks with the people at the adoption shelter, the rational part of my brain knew that I could do this. I was determined to foster kittens. I read online that if I worked long hours, which I did, I should take a pair who could entertain each other when I wasn’t around, and fostering seemed like the perfect idea to see how well I could do with cats around me. I bought everything I needed in advance – cat litter, cat food, a bed for them, and cleaned my room for their arrival.

When Everything Meow, a community of the finest, most selfless people I have ever met, first handed me the basket inside which they restlessly lay, I couldn’t believe I had actually gotten them. I went to my room, and as per the advice by people more experienced with cats, closed the room so that they couldn’t go exploring just yet, and opened the basket. They were tiny and thin; but agile and curious. A litter box lay prepared in the corner so that I could start training them as soon as I got them, but they pooped over my plans – literally. The velvety-bed I had bought for them was climbed into as soon as they got out of the basket, and almost harmoniously, they both crouched, and attended to their nature’s call right there on the cushion.

Chip, the first day I got him
Chip, the first day I got him

 

First few photos of Jimmy and Chip
One of the first few photos of Jimmy and Chip

That was the only time they did that outside of the litter box, though. Once I showed them where to go, they were never confused. The next few months are hard to describe. I was falling in love, and it felt like I wasn’t being loved in return. Every time I came back home from work, I could hear their meowing right from my front door. When I let them out, they would roam around near my feet – probably asking for food. They inhaled the food I gave them for the first few minutes, and then lost interest and went on to clean themselves. All this time, I wanted some kitty love – but picking them up meant they would claw at me, even though it was mostly kind of unintentional. I took them to the vet for their vaccinations and it was established that both were boys. Urvashi named one Chip, and I named the other Jimmy.

They weren’t easy. My home wasn’t exactly cat proof, and I would invariably be cleaning the mess they made of my room. It was tiring, and my anger would be directed towards them when I would come home to find my cupboard completely inside out – everything on the floor. I would punish them by telling them harshly how what the did was wrong and with a stern ‘No!’, something they eventually understood, but more often than not, falling things is a part of living with cats. They just don’t care what they push over in the journey to where they want to perch.

Chippy was always the cuddly one – he could not stand that I wouldn’t pet him when I was working and he was in the mood to be petted, and would walk over me like he owned my hands, giving me little bites on the arms to grab my attention. He would close his eyes and trill gently when I scratched his chin, and it’s an image that I can never forget. When there were several people in my room, he would go to each one turn by turn, bonking his head against their bodies and hands. He was talkative and would meow without any real reason, and I cannot really describe how adorable that was. He could hold a real conversation with a meowing amateur such as myself – that’s how talented he was. He gained some sympathy pregnancy weight when Jimmy got pregnant, and became a big, fluffy tomcat, who ran behind her kittens, licked them, and sometimes got swatted at when he went too far. But he was a little darling, never really hurting any person or cat he has known. He was my little tiger.

Jimmy, on the other hand, is playful and jumpy. She would run behind a string endlessly, severely scratching my hands on more than one occasion. She would show no outright signs of loving me, but I know that she loved me because she normally chose to sleep on my belly, lick my hand once in awhile, and never refrain herself from any kind of play with me. When she became a mother, she became even more beautiful, protective, affectionate, and strong. She could climb over the doors in my room effortlessly, flaunting her skills to Chip – who more often than not, would be left wondering how she climbed so high. Jimmy is frisky, attempting to bite my fingers if I pet her for too long. Eventually I realised, that her bites were love bites, and even if I let her take my finger in her mouth, she never bit down. She would climb on me and rub her head on my neck, and bite my chin in the process, but has never truly bit down on my skin.

Both of them have changed my life, made me happier than I ever thought I could be, and given me a reason to wake up in the morning.

I have known them for 9 months now, and I never thought two little furry babies could become so important to me, that I would be lost if one of them was gone. Cremating Chip was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my short life, and the pain is indescribable. I couldn’t protect his fragile life, and he had entrusted me with it. There is no satiation for that guilt – it’s how I must feel. I want to placate myself by telling myself that there is a cat heaven, that his spirit is free, but the truth was that when I saw his lifeless body, all I could think of was that it wasn’t Chip. It couldn’t be. It was just an empty vessel, and it was returned back to the air. I have no idea where my Chip is – and that is something that I just going to have to live with, because nothing that I can do or feel or regret, is going to change the fact that he is never coming back.

Since Chip has gone, I like to think that Jimmy can sense when I miss him. She puts her front paws on my legs, leans up, and rubs her face against mine tenderly. She does this now much more frequently than she previously did. Without her and her three little babies – Zeus, TBone, and Lizzie, yet again, I have no idea how I would have the will to get out of bed and not find Chip and Jimmy both, waiting for me. Chippy and Jimmy were always my favourites, and I am adding more and more in that list gradually, but dealing with Chippy’s passing was something that I had never been prepared for. Early today morning I heard his loud meow pulsating through the house, but I reminded myself that none of it had been a nightmare. It had all been real. Chip has left me.

The tiger has left the jungle.

Jimmy in all her grace
Jimmy in all her grace

 

"I will sleep in a way that is most uncomfortable to you"
“I will sleep in a way that is most uncomfortable to you”

 

Chip
One of the last photos of Chip I took