Cat Allergies

An old Italian proverb states, "Happy is the home with at least one cat." If only that were true.

For allergy sufferers, the home with a cat can be anything but happy. Between 47 and 95 million Americans with allergies are allergic to their pets—and cat allergies are the clear winner, leading dogs by two to one.

Living With Cat Allergies

Often, people are in denial when it comes to pet allergies.

Even if it's obvious that Frisky is the source of their sniffles, many people refuse to accept it and, instead, choose to suffer with symptoms that may range from mild to severe. There are ways for an allergic person to live with a beloved pet, but the first step to a better quality of life is acceptance.

If an individual suspects she has a cat allergy, she should, if possible, remove the offending feline from the home for a period of two months. While the cat is away, its owner should clean the house at least once a week and monitor her symptoms. If she feels markedly better, it may be time to find a new home for her beloved pet. If she's still determined to live with her furry friend, there are steps she can take to minimize the symptoms of her allergy.

First, if it's a tomcat, have him fixed—neutered males produce fewer allergens, according to Mark Larche, Ph.D., Canada Research Chair in Allergy and Immune Tolerance at McMaster University.

Other ways for people to live with cat allergies include:

  • ban the cat from the bedroom
  • remove the cat's favorite hangouts, including wall-to-wall carpets and upholstered furniture (wood or tiled flooring and clean walls help reduce allergens)
  • select throw rugs that can be washed in hot water and wash them frequently
  • cover heating and air-conditioning vents with a dense filtering material such as cheesecloth
  • install an air cleaner
  • even though the cat will hate it, bathe him regularly (every six weeks or so)
  • recruit a non-allergic person to regularly remove dander and clean the litter box

Signs of Cat Allergies

Cat allergies may not appear for several days if either sensitivity or allergen levels are low.

When an allergic person breathes in pet dander (dead skin), it may cause swelling and itching of the membranes around the eyes and nose. This usually leads to eye inflammation and a stuffy nose.

The skin around a cat scratch may become red as well.

Some cat dander is also small enough to enter a person's lungs. When this happens, the allergen will combine with antibodies that may, in a severely allergic person, cause symptoms such as difficulty breathing, coughing, and wheezing.

Some people may develop a rash on their faces, necks, or upper chest as well. Cat allergies can also lead to chronic asthma—between 10 and 30 percent of asthma sufferers will have a severe attack ?upon coming in contact with a cat.

Cat Allergies in Infants

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when scientists thought that infants who were exposed to animals at a very young age were destined to develop allergies.

However, more recent studies have shown the exact opposite is true—babies who live with cats, especially during the first year of life, develop antibodies to the pet and are less likely to acquire an allergy later on.

As is the case with other allergens, cleanliness isn't always best. For children who are allergic, however, removing toys and stuffed animals with fabric and replacing them with plastic or washable ones may help relieve symptoms.

What Causes Cat Allergies?

The human immune system usually gets it right but, in the case of allergies, instead of attacking a foreign virus or bacteria, it goes after something harmless instead. In the case of a cat allergy, it is reacting to proteins in the animal's dander, saliva or urine. The offending protein is known as an allergen.

Cats secrete these sticky proteins into their dander where they eventually end up everywhere from the feline's fur to between the couch cushions.

How to Treat Cat Allergies

Avoiding the allergen is the best medicine, but when that's not possible, the following medications may help:

  • antihistamines (Benadryl or Claritin)
  • corticosteroids (Flonase or Nasonex)
  • over-the-counter decongestant sprays
  • cromolyn sodium (prevents the release of immune system chemicals; may reduce symptoms)
  • leukotriene modifiers (Singulair)
  • allergy shots (immunotherapy: a series of shots that "desensitize" a person to an allergen)

A home remedy for cat allergies is a nasal lavage. Salt water (saline) is used to rinse an allergic individual’s nasal passages, thus reducing congestion, postnasal drip, and sneezing. Several over-the-counter brands are available, or salt water can be made at home by combining 1/8 teaspoon of table salt with 8 ounces of distilled water.

Best Air Purifiers for Cat Allergies

High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters are one of the best attacks against cat allergies. They work at reducing airborne pet allergens by forcing air through a special filter that traps pet dander (as well as pollen, dust mites, and other allergens).

Reducing Cat Allergies

Again, avoidance is best.

Cats are resilient creatures, however, and may be as happy outdoors as indoors. A person with a severe cat allergy should consider finding a new home for her pet. It may not seem like it at first, but everyone involved—including the cat—may be happier in the end.

Once a cat is removed from the environment, it can take several weeks or months for allergens to dissipate.