Imagine if the food we fed our cats could make us less allergic to them. It may sound far-fetched, but at least one company is now marketing a cat food designed to significantly reduce the allergens cats put into the environment. If it works, it will help the millions of people, cat owners included, who end up wheezing with runny noses and watery eyes when cat dander gets the better of them. It may even potentially help stop some cats from being relinquished to shelters, as cat allergies are commonly declared as a reason for surrendering feline pets.
The research behind the product
One of the biggest cat allergens to cause problems for people is a substance found in our pets’ saliva. Called Fel d1, it gets onto cat hair when cats groom themselves via licking, mixing with the hair and dander. Dander in particular is a problem because it can spread the allergen through the environment. It’s also problematic because Fel d1 very easily remains airborne and thus is all too easy to breathe in. It adheres to carpet and fabric as well. Almost all people allergic to cats react to this substance.
But scientists at one food company have found a way to neutralize Fel D1 by keeping it from being able to start the immune system cascade in people that leads to all the unpleasant allergy symptoms. It turns out that chicken eggs contain antibodies that can deactivate Fel D1 by binding to specific bonding sites on it. Thus, when cats eat food that contain these antibodies, their active Fel D1 load goes down, making the environment less allergen-dense.
In one trial, six cats who were fed a special Fel D1-neutralizing diet for 6 weeks averaged a decrease in the harmful substance of almost 30 percent. In a second trial involving 20 cats, some were fed a control diet while some were fed the diet meant to inactivate the offending allergen in the animals’ saliva. Four weeks later, active Fel D1 had decreased by an average of 24 percent in the cats fed the special diet. The substance decreased in those cats fed the regular diet, too, but not to a degree that reached statistical significance.
Around the same time, a scientific team led by the same researcher published a study in a different journal that was conducted with 105 cats. For 10 weeks, the cats consumed special food that deactivated the Fel D1 allergen in their saliva with the antibody in chicken egg. The upshot: the amount of allergen in samples of their hair had decreased by an average of 47 percent.
Ready for prime time?
The research is fascinating — and promising. But it’s not at all conclusive. What it does not do is answer whether people who are allergic to cats would suffer fewer allergy symptoms if their pets eat the special food. It’s logical to assume that they would, but different people react differently to different cats. The food by no means rids a cat of all its allergens — the average range was 24 to less than 50 percent — and some people react intensely to just a tiny amount of the offending substance. The scientists themselves say at the conclusion of one of their studies that “additional research will be needed to determine if this reduction [in Fel D1] is sufficient to reduce…clinical symptoms of allergies to cats in sensitive individuals.”
We should note, too, that while the research appears in well-respected journals, the scientists conducting them all cite conflicts of interest. Each one works for the company producing the special food, and they make clear that the pet food company paid for the research.
It doesn’t mean the research is invalid. But it’s important to consider the source — and the fact that the company has put the food on the market without determining the ultimate result: whether people suffer fewer allergy symptoms if their cats are fed this food.
Thus, if you decide to try a food marketed as inhibiting allergen production in cats, be aware that nothing might change for you. And if it does change, there’s a fair chance it won’t eliminate your symptoms completely.
Other ways for reducing cat allergens in your home
Whether or not you try a food that reduces the allergens in your cat’s saliva, if you or others who come into your home are allergic to cats, try these tactics.
- Bathe your cat regularly. 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 pretty quickly).
- Regularly clean fabrics like slipcovers and drapes. Allergens can accumulate there.
- Make a habit of wiping down walls as well as furniture.
- Consider replacing carpet with hardwood or tile floors, which are easier to keep dander-free.
- Snuggle with your pet in only one outfit so that dander does not spread to all your clothes.
- Wash your hands immediately after touching your pet — and before touching your hands to your face.
- Add an air cleaner with a HEPA filter to central air conditioning and heating. That will help stop allergens from circulating throughout the house.
- Vacuum frequently. A vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter that removes at least 99.7 percent of particles measuring 0.3 microns is your best bet for picking up allergen-containing dander. The label should guide you; if it doesn’t, a call to the manufacturer should provide clarity.
- Let in a little fresh air daily, no matter how cold or hot outside. It will help.
- Create an allergen-free zone in your home. Both the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States recommend it. The most logical place is your bedroom, where you spend a third of your life. Of course, tiny, molecule-size allergens can make their way through a closed door. But making your bedroom off limits to your pet will help.