Your cat may be one of your best friends. But cats can also be a major source of asthma triggers, such as dead skin (dander), urine, or saliva. Breathing in any of these allergens can trigger allergic reactions that result in asthma symptoms.
And your cat doesn’t even need to be around to trigger a reaction. These allergens often float around in your home’s air — latched onto dust particles — and land on furniture, curtains, and rugs. If your cat shares a bed with you, allergens can stay in your sheets and blankets for years to come, even if you wash them regularly.
Giving up your beloved feline friend not an option? You’re not alone — many would rather take precautions to treat their symptoms and the source of the allergens than put their kitty up for adoption.
That’s exactly what we’ll cover here: How you can start a treatment plan and make lifestyle changes to accommodate allergic asthma caused by your cat.
First of all, it’s worth knowing how allergic asthma is different from other types of asthma.
Asthma happens when your airways get inflamed. Your airways take air into your lungs through your windpipe (or trachea) and bronchioles, which absorb oxygen into your blood through your lungs. Asthma can have various causes, including chronic allergies, having parents with asthma, or having an airway infection when you’re young. An asthma flare-up may happen without warning or when exposed to triggers like stress or overexertion from exercise.
Allergic asthma, or allergy-induced asthma, happens when your airways get inflamed after exposure to an allergen. About 60 percent of everyone with asthma in the United States has this type. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, about 30 percent of people with allergies have cat or dog allergies. Twice as many people have cat allergies than dog allergies.
It’s easiest to know if you have this kind of asthma if you notice your symptoms during allergy seasons, such as the spring and fall when pollen is at high levels, or when you’re directly exposed to triggers like cat dander or certain chemicals.
Cats can produce numerous allergens that can trigger asthma symptoms, including:
- Dander. Dead skin flakes that originate around a cat’s sweat glands can float in the air, stick to dust particles, and get inhaled.
- Saliva. Proteins like albumin or Felis domesticus 1 (Fel d 1) are transferred to the cat’s skin when it grooms itself with its tongue. These proteins can get on your skin or stick to dander that gets inhaled.
- Urine. The protein Fel d 1 is also found in cat urine. This can trigger asthma symptoms if you get too close and inhale it.
Some common allergy and asthma symptoms related to cats can include:
- persistent cough
- tightness in your chest
- breathing quickly
- feeling short of breath
- outbreak of rash
- flaky skin
- runny nose
- eye itching
- eye watering
- sinus congestion
- breaking out in hives
- tongue, face, or mouth swelling
- airway swelling that makes it hard to breathe (anaphylaxis)
Your doctor may be able to diagnose cat-related allergic asthma from describing your symptoms and your home environment. If your symptoms only happen when you’re around your cat or at home, where allergens are likely high in number, a diagnosis may be given.
Further tests may be needed if your doctor can’t immediately narrow down the cause of your symptoms. Your doctor may recommend either a skin test, blood test, or both to pinpoint the cause of your allergies.
Here’s how these tests work:
- Allergy skin prick test. For this test, your doctor sticks a needle covered in a small amount of an allergen into your skin. If the area becomes swollen or irritated within a half hour, you’re allergic to that substance. Your doctor may repeat this several times with different allergens to measure the extent of your allergies.
- Intradermal skin test. This test involves your doctor injecting a small amount of an allergen into your arm. If irritation occurs, you’re likely allergic to that substance. Your skin may react to the injection even if you’re not allergic, so this test may not be performed alone to diagnose your allergies.
- Blood test. For this test, your doctor draws blood using a thin needle and sends the sample to a laboratory to test for antibodies that react to certain allergens. Other than the needle being poked through your skin, you won’t have any reaction. The results may not be available right away, but you’ll get a much more accurate breakdown of what’s causing your allergies.
Most doctors will tell you that the only sure way to limit or avoid allergic asthma symptoms from your cat is to remove the cat from your home. Even then, dander can remain in your home for months afterward, and you’ll still experience symptoms.
But if that’s not an option for you, there are plenty of other ways you can treat your symptoms:
- Take allergy medications. Over-the-counter antihistamines like cetirizine (Zyrtec), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), or loratadine (Claritin) tend to work best.
- Use an inhaler. Your doctor may prescribe an inhaler like albuterol (ProAir HFA, Ventolin HFA) for quick symptom relief. You may only need an inhaler if your symptoms are infrequent.
- Get allergy shots. Allergy shots, or immunotherapy, consists of injections that contain tiny amounts of cat allergens to help make your immune system more resistant to it. Over time, your symptoms will become less severe and frequent.
- Use nasal sprays. Sprays like mometasone (Nasonex) contain corticosteroids that can reduce inflammation and other symptoms.
- Make a saline rinse. Rinsing allergens out your nose with warm water and salt can reduce symptoms by keeping allergens from getting into your airways.
- Take cromolyn sodium. This medication stops your immune system from releasing chemicals that cause symptoms.
You can also change up your lifestyle to limit your exposure to dander and other cat asthma triggers:
- Don’t let your cat sleep in your bed. Keep your bed free of dander so that you have at least one allergen-free zone.
- Use a HEPA air purifier. An indoor air purifier can remove allergens from the air and recirculate clean, allergen-free air back into your home.
- Replace your carpets. Install wood or laminate flooring to limit dander buildup. If you want to keep your carpet, replace it with low-pile carpet.
- Vacuum often. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter and wear a dust mask while you vacuum to keep allergens from getting into your airways.
- Change your clothes after hanging out with your cat. Change into fresh clothes free of dander after you spend time with your kitty to reduce possible exposure.
- Bathe your cat regularly. Regular baths can limit how much dander and asthma-inducing proteins are present on your cat’s skin.
- Get a hypoallergenic cat. There’s no such thing as an allergen-free cat. But some cats are bred to produce less of the Fel d 1 gene. These cats
It can be difficult to pinpoint whether cats are actually the source of your allergic asthma. Cat allergens can combine with other possible triggers to making your symptoms disruptive to your life. Asthma can also get worse over time if it’s not treated.
An allergist can use tests to specify what exactly exacerbates your asthma symptoms and help you build up your immune system to tolerate them. Immunity is important if you want to keep your feline baby around long term.
Your cat may be your best friend, but they may also be the source of your allergic asthma symptoms.
If you’re not willing to part with them to remove cat allergens from your house entirely, you can still keep your feline relationship strong. Treat the symptoms, make some changes around the house to limit your exposure to allergens, and see an allergist for long-term relief.