If you’re plagued with sneezing, wheezing, or red, watery eyes every time you’re around a feline friend, you’re not alone. It is estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of us have a cat allergyand there is evidence that the number is increasing.
But if you also revel in the cuteness of cats, you may be wondering if there’s an allergy loophole (or even a panacea) out there somewhere. The detailed answer is not a definitive “yes” or “no”, but something in between.
What are allergies?
Allergies exist because the human immune system sometimes overreacts to foreign substances called allergens. To protect itself, the immune system produces proteins called antibodies, although allergens themselves are harmless.
This reaction produces inflammatory responses in the nasal passages and lungs, which can lead to bothersome allergy symptoms:
Although generally rare for pet allergies, the worst case of allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) can involve swelling, hives, severe respiratory problems, and even shock or death.
Read more: Everything you need to know about allergies
Cat allergies are a different beast
According to The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, an estimated 15 to 30 percent of people with existing allergies also have allergic reactions to cats or dogs. And believe it or not, allergies to cats are twice as common as allergies to dogs.
This reaction is due to a handful of proteins found in cats’ skin cells, fur, saliva, and urine. But cat fur itself is not actually an allergen.
The sebaceous glands in the skin and the salivary glands of cats produce the proteins that people react to, and they accumulate on the fur and skin during the cat’s grooming habits. The highest concentrations of allergens are found on a cat’s face and neck, due to the location of those sebaceous glands.
Also, when cats shed small flakes of skin and hair, better known as the dreaded “D” word, dandruff — we become susceptible to bad timing. Allergist Dana Wallace has said that cat dander it’s smaller than many types of pollen, mold, or other animal dander, and it stays airborne longer after being driven from its resting place on upholstered furniture or clothing.
Are there hypoallergenic cats?
The unfortunate reality is that all cat breeds in the world produce allergens, which means that the idea of a truly hypoallergenic cat is pure myth.
Similarly, there is still no permanent cure for allergies beyond completely avoiding the allergens that affect you in the first place. As long as he is occasional case of a person’s allergies miraculously disappearing, the exact reasons why this happens are not well understood.
But there is hope: some breeds of cats seem to produce low levels of allergens, specifically the allergy-causing protein Fel d 1.
As such, these cat breeds — which include the Balinese, Javanese, Bengali, Russian Blue, Siberian, Colorprint Shorthair, Cornish Rex, and Sphynx (noted for their lack of traditional cat fur) — may be more suitable choices for those torn between a love of company of cats and how many boxes of antihistamines to buy.
Read more: Scientists are developing treatments to make cats allergy-free
Treatments for allergies to cats
Even if you don’t have one of these cat breeds, there are other ways to minimize the effects of cat allergies. Spaying or neutering your cat, for example, actually decreases allergen production.
And while most cats hate getting wet, weekly bathing your furry friend with a specially formulated pet shampoo can lower allergen concentrations by up to 84 percent, according to the State of Ohio.
Other medical options can also help you keep your allergies under control, including over-the-counter medications to relieve your symptoms. Also consider talking to your doctor, as some people may benefit more from prescription allergy medications, immunotherapy injections, and other treatments.
In addition to visiting a pharmacy, of course, there are many things you can clean regularly to keep your environment free of allergens.
How to help cat allergies
Always wash your hands after petting or touching a cat, establish cat-free rooms in the home, and vacuum frequently with a HEPA-filter equipped vacuum. Consider wearing a dust mask for the latter, as it will take time for allergens to settle back on surfaces after being disturbed by cleaning.
For the same reason, dry cleaning with feather dusters is not a great idea. Static-charged or wet-based cleaning products, on the other hand, trap and remove allergens instead of aerosolizing them. You may also consider replacing the carpet with smooth flooring like linoleum, tile, or wood, as carpet contains up to 13 times more cat allergens.
Lastly, any time you wash bedding, clothing, or other items where cats have spent time, be sure to use high-temperature water to remove as many allergens as possible.
While being allergic to cats cannot be completely avoided, you can now see that there are many ways to strike a tolerable balance between suffering from allergy symptoms and being around the furry family members you love.
Read more: Do pets have a positive effect on your cognitive health?