Up to a third of Americans with allergies are allergic to cats and dogs. And twice as many people have cat allergies than have dog allergies.
Pinpointing the cause of your allergies can be difficult when an animal lives in your home. That’s because homes contain other allergens such as dust mites, which could cause similar symptoms.
It’s important to see an allergist in order to confirm a pet allergy.
It can be hard to admit the cat you love is causing health issues. Many people choose to endure symptoms rather than get rid of their pet. If you’re determined to live with Fluffy the feline, you can take steps to minimize the symptoms of your allergy.
Read on to learn about the signs of cat allergies and what you can do to prevent them.
Cat allergies are genetic, meaning that you’re more likely to develop them if you have family members who are allergic.
Your immune system makes antibodies to fight off substances that might hurt your body, like bacteria and viruses. The immune system in a person who has allergies mistakes an allergen for something harmful and starts making antibodies to fight it. This is what causes allergy symptoms like itching, runny nose, and asthma.
Allergens can come from your cat’s dander (dead skin), their salivary glands, and even their urine. Breathing in pet dander or coming into contact with allergens from the salivary glands or urine can cause an allergic reaction.
Cat dander particles are the smallest of major allergens. At 2.5 to 10 micrometers, they’re smaller than dust mites and dog dander. Cat dander is also small enough to become airborne and settle on walls, carpet, upholstery, clothing, and enter a person's lungs. These allergens can linger in your home, causing you symptoms months after the animal is gone.
You don’t have to own a cat in order to be exposed to the allergen. It can travel on people’s clothes. Cat allergies may not appear for several days if sensitivity or allergen levels are low.
Common signs of a cat allergy usually follow shortly after you come in contact with cat dander, saliva, or urine. This can cause swelling and itching of the membranes around the eyes and nose, usually leading to eye inflammation and a stuffy nose. The skin around a cat scratch may become red. Some people may develop a rash on their faces, necks, or upper chest.
If cat dander gets into your lungs, the allergen will combine with antibodies that may, in a severely allergic person, cause symptoms such as difficulty breathing, coughing, and wheezing. Cat allergies can also lead to chronic asthma.
Up to 30 percent of asthma sufferers will have a severe attack upon coming into contact with a cat. You should talk to your doctor if your symptoms become disruptive or uncomfortable.
There are two ways to test for cat allergies: a skin prick test and a blood test. Skin prick testing is more sensitive and specific than blood testing. Both are done by an allergist.
Allergy Skin Prick Test
This test is performed in your doctor’s office so they can observe any reactions.
Using a clean needle, your doctors will prick your skin’s surface (usually on the forearm or back), and a tiny amount of the allergen will enter. You’ll likely be tested for several allergens at the same time. You’ll also be injected with a control solution that has no allergens. Your doctor may number each prick to identify the allergen.
In about 15 to 20 minutes, the injection site may swell or become red. This reaction confirms an allergy to that substance. Cat allergies usually cause a red, itchy bump. These unpleasant effects generally go away 30 minutes after the test.
Some people are unable to have a skin prick done, often because of an existing skin condition. In this case, your doctor will order a blood test. Blood will be drawn either at the doctor’s office or a laboratory and then sent for testing. The blood is then examined for antibodies to common allergens, such as cat dander.
Avoiding the allergen is best, but when that's not possible, the following medications may help:
- antihistamines (such as Benadryl or Claritin)
- corticosteroids (such as Flonase or Nasonex)
- over-the-counter decongestant sprays
- cromolyn sodium (prevents the release of immune system chemicals and may reduce symptoms)
- leukotriene modifiers (such as Singulair)
- allergy shots known as immunotherapy (a series of shots that "desensitize" you to an allergen)
Nasal lavage is a home remedy for symptoms of cat allergies. Salt water (saline) is used to rinse your nasal passages, reducing congestion, postnasal drip, and sneezing. Several over-the-counter brands are available. You can make salt water 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 reduce airborne pet allergens by forcing air through a special filter that traps pet dander (as well as pollen, dust mites, and other allergens).
Allergies in Infants
There is ongoing debate among scientists whether infants who are exposed to animals at a very young age are destined to develop allergies, or if the opposite is true. Recent studies have come to conflicting conclusions. A 2015 study found that exposing infants to cats at home is associated with a higher risk of developing allergies during the first four years of a child’s life.
On the other hand, a 2011 study found that 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.
Your doctor will be able to answer questions you may have about your baby and your cat. For children who are allergic, removing fabric toys and stuffed animals and replacing them with plastic or washable ones may help relieve symptoms.
Avoidance is best to prevent the allergies in the first place. But if rehoming your cat isn’t an option, consider these strategies for reducing your symptoms. If your cat is a tomcat, have him fixed. Neutered males produce fewer allergens.
Other ways you can live with cat allergies:
- Ban the cat from your bedroom.
- Wash your hands after touching the cat.
- Remove wall-to-wall carpeting 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.
- Vacuum frequently with a HEPA filter vacuum.
- Use a face mask while dusting or cleaning.
- Bathe your cat regularly (every six weeks or so).
- Recruit a non-allergic person to regularly remove dander and clean the litter box.
If you have a severe cat allergy, you should consider finding a new home for your pet. Once a cat is removed from the environment, it can take several weeks or months for allergens to dissipate.
It might not seem like it at first, but everyone involved — including the cat — may be happier in the end.