For centuries, the caricature of a woman with a horde of cats and no social skills has persisted in pop culture. The trope is popular worldwide and is even a common character type in many widely beloved TV shows and movies. Yet, is there any truth behind the idea of the “crazy cat lady?”
What is the crazy cat lady stereotype? People usually use this epithet to refer to a woman who owns a lot of cats, often with the assumption that she is lonely, socially awkward, has relationship problems, and may have anxiety or a related mental health condition. People often use the term humorously now, but it didn’t quite start out that way.
Whether this stereotype has any truth to it is a split answer. No, having a cat does not make you any more inclined to mental health issues than anyone else. However, cats do carry a zoonotic parasite that can, in a sense, “drive you crazy” due to negative cognitive effects. Here’s a deep-dive into this centuries-old stereotype about cat owners.
The Crazy Cat Lady Stereotype
If you’ve ever had a friend who owns many cats, odds are you’ve heard some interesting nicknames thrown around, referencing their love for their feline companions. Aside from the typical “cat mom,” one of the most common epithet cat owners can relate to is “crazy cat lady.”
What does “crazy cat lady” mean exactly? Generally, this term is used in reference to a stereotype of women who happen to have several cats, often to compensate for social anxiety or another interpersonal problem. Her abnormality will supposedly drive her to live alone, only to be accompanied by her cats.
This is a common trope shown in cat ladies in pop culture. For example, there’s Gayle from “Bob’s Burgers.” Gayle struggles in some social settings and is one of the most awkward members of the family. Yet, she takes solace in her cats, especially Mr. Business.
More on the Stereotype
This nickname can also be a label for someone who’s merely a huge fan of domestic cats. For instance, you might affectionately refer to a friend who has many cats as a “crazy cat lady” or a woman might self-identify as this caricature out of humor. Fortunately, those uses aren’t based on mischaracterizations of people, but a lighthearted exaggeration about your admiration for your cat.
Claiming the cat lady trope might also be a form of preserving yourself from others’ pointed humor. The author of The Field Guide to North American Males, Marjorie Ingall, said: “It’s a way of saying that you know you’re vulnerable at this point in time while also saying that you’re powerful because you can joke about it. When you joke about it, you’re in control.”
This points to another one of the common issues with the “crazy cat lady” myth. The concept is often geared toward women. Even if you are a man who owns several cats, you’re unlikely to be the butt of a cat lady (or “cat guy”) joke. With that said, some women will introduce the joke before anyone else can, just to get it over with.
The Cat Lady Isn’t Crazy
Another trait that’s often worked into myths about cat ladies is that the woman is single. The idea is that since she struggles in normal social settings, she isn’t very good at romance. This leads many people to project the stereotype described above to nearly any woman who owns a cat and happens to be single, regardless of how many feline companions she may have.
Needless to say, this is just as presumptuous as the caricature described above and thus a false generalization. Although, it is partially based on cat ownership trends, considering that 11% of cats live with single women versus 2% with single men.
In fact, it’s been empirically proven wrong more than once. In 2019, a study involving over 450 participants looked closely at self-reported personality traits, specifically those related to anxiety, depression, and close relationships.
One half of the survey sample, made up of 264 pet owners, including cat ladies, was not any more anxious, depressed, or lonely than the other 297 individuals who did not have any pets. In other words: owning a cat does not make anyone more inclined to mental or emotional health disorders than anyone else.
Interestingly, though, the researchers did find that the pet owners were more sensitive to cat and dog sounds than people who didn’t own pets. In some instances, pet lovers equated dogs’ cries to a human baby’s crying. This means that if you have a cat, you’re potentially more in tune with the precise meanings behind your cat’s vocalizations.
Stereotyping the Single Cat Lady
It’s easy to brush these characteristics off as societal misrepresentations of single cat ladies now, but it wasn’t as much of a silly misnomer back in the day. For example, take a look at this excerpt from an 1872 New York Times editorial titled, “Cats and Craziness:”
“It is a curious fact that lunatics, especially those whose lunacy is of a mild and comparatively innocuous type, frequently evince a remarkable fondness for cats. The insane man or woman who lives in a garret, in the intimate society of three or four score cats, is perpetually coming to the knowledge of the public.”
These perceptions of “cat people,” especially single women, have been around for quite some time. Given the existing research debunking the myth, you’d think that the saying “all stereotypes have some element of truth to them” doesn’t apply. Well, you’d be wrong.
The “crazy cat lady” myth is based on the effects of a zoonotic disease that can affect cat owners more than dog owners. Although the stereotype isn’t based on genuine personality traits, it may have risen into popular consciousness due to people’s experiences with infected cat owners, especially women with cats.
What Causes “Crazy Cat Lady” Syndrome?
“Crazy cat lady” syndrome, officially known as toxoplasmosis, is a disease caused by the single-celled parasite, Toxoplasma gondii. It is incredibly widespread across the entire globe. Yet, it doesn’t often cause significant disease outside of the following group:
Infants who are born with toxoplasmosis
Anyone who has received a bone marrow or organ transplant
People who fit these descriptions face a higher risk of having a severe, potentially life-threatening infection. Still, what does all of this have to do with cats?
Unfortunately, the single-celled parasite’s preferred host is the domestic cat. Within the cat’s body, the parasite will grow and proliferate, intensifying the biological invasion until the cat ultimately becomes a danger to other mammals that live with it.
A single cat can pass millions of parasites in its waste every day. Something as simple as forgetting to wash your hands after changing the cat litter can lead to an infection.
Domestic cats are the reason why this disease has been linked to stereotypes about women and their pets. However, they’re not the only source of the parasite. Other common reasons why someone might get infected with T. gondii include:
Consuming raw or undercooked pork, lamb, or venison
Touching your mouth after handling any of the meat types listed above, undercooked
Using eating or cooking utensils that have been contaminated by raw meat
Consuming contaminated water
Contaminated blood transfusions or organ transplants
What Toxoplasmosis Does to the Body
Once the parasite makes its way into your body, either by you touching your mouth with dirty hands or even by eating raw or undercooked meat, it can travel to almost any of your organs. It will most likely head to your digestive tract, as this is where the parasite needs to multiply.
However, it has also been reported to go to the brain, cardiac and skeletal muscles, eyes, lymph nodes, and lungs.
Most people’s immune systems can take care of the problem before it gets out of hand. However, if the parasite were to make it all the way to your brain or eye, it could possibly stay in your brain tissue or retina for the rest of your life, albeit dormant.
Immunocompromised people are among those who face the highest risk of severe or fatal infection. In these cases, it’s more likely to spread out of control before the immune system can effectively combat it. Further, dormant parasites may reactivate and cause a second infection.
In extreme cases, toxoplasmosis can lead to further neurological complications because of severe brain infection, known as “encephalitis.” Without treatment, this condition is often fatal. Fortunately, there are a few signs you can look for before toxoplasmosis can reach such a stage. The symptoms are as follows:
Swollen lymph nodes
General feelings of sickness
Mild or severe fever
Cognitive issues, such as trouble concentrating or personality changes
Impaired mobility, problems speaking and seeing, due to nerve damage
Because awareness of mental health issues and cognitive functioning was not as widespread as it is now, people seemed to have lumped all these symptoms together in the past and collectively referred to them as “crazy,” forming the beginnings of the myth as it is known today.
Be aware that as many as 90% of toxoplasmosis infections do not result in any symptoms. So, it’s best to practice consistent, careful hygiene if you own a cat, or any pet, for that matter.
The crazy cat lady stereotype is many things. However, it’s mostly a silly self-deprecating label and a centuries-old social stigma based on a gross misunderstanding of cognitive impairment and its zoonotic causes.
Whatever its roots may be, rest assured that you’re not “crazy” for loving your feline companion. In fact, we at Catzio encourage you to shower your little buddy in affection with as much catnip and as many scratching posts as its heart may desire!
About the Author
My name is Jazmin "Sunny" Murphy, and I am a science communicator and web content writer. Since 2015, I've been producing scientific content that is written in plain English. My love for life science has influenced my professional and academic aspirations since I was a kid. I hold a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and 21 units of a Master's education in Environmental Policy & Management (concentration: Fish and Wildlife Management). You can learn more about me and my science writing and reporting work at my website, Black Flower Writing Services.