You love your cat and let him get up close even though having him around makes your eyes water, your nose run, or your throat scratchy. You’re not alone. About 10 percent of the U.S. population has a pet allergy, with twice as many people allergic to cats as to dogs, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. With an estimated 47 million cat-owning households in the U.S., that’s a lot of discomfort endured in the name of feline love.
We get that you’re not going to give up your cat over some annoying symptoms. But what if you could choose your next cat with assurances that it would be hypoallergenic? Is it possible?
The real scoop on hypoallergenic cats
A lot of people assume that if a cat has short hair or, even better, is hairless, it won’t cause problems for allergy sufferers. That’s why it is often thought the Sphinx, a virtually hairless breed, is a safe bet. The Devon Rex is also believed safe for those with cat allergies because its unusual coat, ranging anywhere from curly to suede-like down, makes shedding less noticeable.
But neither is a foolproof choice for an allergic cat lover. That’s because it isn’t a cat’s fur that triggers allergic symptoms. It’s a protein in his dander — dead skin cells that slough off. That protein, known as Fel d 1, is also found in a cat’s urine and sebum, which is an oily secretion of the sebaceous glands in the skin that lubricates the hair as well as the skin itself. It’s in feline saliva, too. That’s significant because when cats groom themselves using their own saliva, the allergen loaded up in that substance dries up and becomes airborne. In turn, the tiny offending allergens become easy to breathe in. What’s more, because they’re so light and sticky, they quickly adhere to surfaces like upholstered furniture, bedding, and curtains.
In other words, there’s really no such thing as a hypoallergenic cat. Moreover, different cats affect different allergic people in unique ways. You may be allergic to a particular feline while a friend of yours with a cat allergy can tolerate that particular cat without any symptoms being triggered. And someone can have a low or no reaction to a cat from the Sphinx breed while another can’t be near a Sphynx without a box of tissues close by. So are people who want a cat in their lives doomed to play Russian roulette — and more often than not, lose?
10 tips for tamping down on the feline allergy triggers in your household
Nothing you do can guarantee that if you’re allergic to cats, you won’t suffer symptoms when one lives in your home. But there are steps you can take to lessen the chance an allergy to cats will get the better of you.
1|Bathe your cat regularly. (See last month’s Catnip for tips on how.) You won’t just be helping to wash away the allergens in a cat’s dander, but you’ll also help remove other allergens that can settle on a cat’s fur, like dust, pollen, and mold. One study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology showed that bathing a pet reduces allergen levels by about 85 percent (although they do start to creep back up within days).
2|Designate a pet-free room, perhaps the bedroom. Dander can get in under the door — but making the room off limits to your feline will help.
3|Clean more often, including fabrics like slipcovers, drapes, and curtains.
4|Regularly wipe down walls as well as furniture.
5|Consider replacing carpet with hardwood floors — they’re easier to wash free of dander.
6|Designate one set of clothes as a pet outfit so that snuggling with your cat does not spread dander through your entire wardrobe.
7|Wash your hands immediately after petting your cat — especially before touching your hands to your face.
8|Add an air cleaner with a HEPA filter to central air conditioning and heating. That will help stop allergens from circulating throughout the house. Letting in a little fresh air daily, no matter how cold or hot outside, will help, too.
9|Talk to your doctor about whether frequent use of over-the-counter allergy medications to dampen symptoms would be okay.
10|Consider allergy shots (immunotherapy). They decrease sensitivity to allergens and can provide more lasting relief than OTC medicines.
A final thought: Sometimes people build up immunity to cat allergens on their own. The symptoms simply dissipate, and the allergy sufferer can literally breathe easier.