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 globally, and has even become a common character type in TV shows and movies. But is there any truth behind the idea of the “crazy cat lady?”
What is the "crazy cat lady" stereotype? It's usually used in reference to a woman who owns a lot of cats, often coupled with the assumption that she is lonely, socially awkward, has relationship problems, and may have anxiety or a similar mental health condition. Nowadays it's used humorously, but it didn’t quite start that way.
People disagree on whether this stereotype has any truth to it. On the one hand: No, having a cat doesn't make you any more inclined to mental health or social issues than others. But cats carry a zoonotic parasite that can, in a sense, “drive you crazy” via its harmful cognitive effects. Here’s a deep dive into this centuries-old stereotype about cat owners and its causes.
The "Crazy Cat Lady" Stereotype
If you or a friend have owned cats before, odds are you’ve heard some interesting nicknames thrown around. Some of these names might how much they love their cats. Aside from the typical “cat mom,” you've probably heard “crazy cat lady” once or twice.
But what exactly does the latter mean? Generally, it's a stereotype of women who happen to have several cats, often to compensate for social anxiety or another interpersonal problem. She lives alone, in the company of her cats.
Cat ladies show up pretty often 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
“Crazy cat lady” is a label for someone who’s really just a huge fan of domestic cats. You can use it affectionately for a friend or self-deprecatingly. Those are some of the better uses of this nickname, of course.
Embracing the cat lady trope might also be a form of defending yourself against such jokes that come at your expense. Marjorie Ingall, author of The Field Guide to North American Males, said in an interview for the New York Times, “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.”
Ingall’s perspective emphasizes one of the most pervasive facets of the “crazy cat lady” myth: Women are almost always the butt of the joke—it’s in the name! So, some women opt to tell the joke first just to get it out of the way.
The Cat Lady Isn’t Crazy
Being single is another persistent trait wound up in the “crazy cat lady” trope. Here’s the gist: Since the woman struggles in social settings, she fails at romance. Thus, the term has become somewhat of a blanket assumption applied to single women who happen to be cat owners—in some cases, it doesn’t even matter how many cats they have.
Needless to say, this is just as presumptuous as the “crazy cat lady” caricature itself. Still, it’s worth noting that cat ownership trends lend a modicum of truth the gender-related facets of the stereotype since 11 percent of cats live with single women versus two percent with single men.
Yet, the idea that single women who own cats are more inclined to particular mental health or social conditions has been repeatedly proven wrong. For example, in 2019, a study involving over 450 participants looked closely at self-reported personality traits related to anxiety, depression, and close relationships.
Half of the survey sample, comprised of 264 pet owners was not any more anxious, depressed, or lonely than the other half, consisting of 297 non-pet owners. 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 off these stereotypes now. But it was more than just flippant name-calling back in the day. Consider 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 persisted for generations. Yet, again, despite the existing research debunking the myth, there is still a bit of truth to the stereotype, apart from gender-related cat ownership rates.
Most notably, the myth is based on observable symptoms of a zoonotic disease affecting cat owners, in particular.
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 globe. Yet, it only causes serious disease in the following individuals:
- Cancer patients
- Infants born with toxoplasmosis
- Bone marrow or organ transplant patients
This group faces a higher risk of severe, potentially life-threatening infections. And it can come straight from the housecat.
The single-celled parasite, T. gondii prefers the domestic cat as its primary host. It grows and reproduces inside the cat’s body, intensifying its biological invasion until the cat endangers its housemates.
And this danger can come sooner than you might imagine. A single cat can pass millions of parasites in its waste every day. So, even simply forgetting to wash your hands after changing the cat litter can lead to an infection.
As T. gondii’s preferred host, domestic cats are a major reason why women are stereotyped for owning these pets. Still, they’re not the only source of the parasite. People might also get infected with T. gondii in the following ways:
- Drinking contaminated water
- Eating raw or undercooked pork, lamb, or venison
- Contaminated blood transfusions or organ transplants
- Touching your mouth after handling undercooked meats
- Using eating or cooking utensils that have been contaminated by raw meat
What Toxoplasmosis Does to the Body
Once the parasite makes its way into your body, 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 be 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. But 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 face the highest risk of severe or fatal infection. For these individuals, it’s more likely to spread out of control before the immune system can combat it effectively. Plus, dormant parasites can reactivate and cause a second infection. So, you’re not quite out of the woods even after a supposed recovery.
In extreme cases, toxoplasmosis can lead to further neurological complications because of severe brain infection. This is known as “encephalitis,” which is often fatal without treatment. Fortunately, these sign and symptoms can help identify toxoplasmosis before it reaches these extremes:
- Mild or severe fever
- Swollen lymph nodes
- General feelings of sickness
- Cognitive issues, such as trouble concentrating or personality changes
- Impaired mobility, problems speaking and seeing, due to nerve damage
Public awareness of mental health wasn’t as widespread as it is now. So, people lumped all these symptoms together referred to them collectively as “crazy,” forming the beginnings of the modern cat lady myth.
(Now that you know how bad toxoplasmosis can get, rest assured that only 90 percent of toxoplasmosis infections do not result in any symptoms. Still, it’s best to practice consistent, careful hygiene if you own a cat.)
The crazy cat lady stereotype is many things. At its best, it’s a silly self-deprecating label. At its worst, it’s 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! And wash your hands afterward, of course ;)
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.