Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted a cat. My father, who hates cats and is also allergic to them, nixed the idea for years. So when I was 23, I finally fulfilled my wish to adopt the cutest little black kitten I’d ever seen. I named her Addy.
For the first year, Addy was my cuddle mate at all times. I’d never been tested for allergies, because I assumed I hadn’t inherited any of that nonsense. But once my little fur ball grew into full adulthood and my fiancé and I moved into a tiny apartment in Philly, I began to notice problems. Big ones.
Bloodshot, irritated eyes. Constant lung congestion. Scary loss of breath. I went to an allergist in the city, who said I had severe allergies to dust and … you guessed it, cats. I asked how I could have gone this long without being aware of it, and she said it isn’t unusual for allergies to manifest in your 20s or after repeated, prolonged contact to the allergen. Her advice was to give the cat up for adoption.
I left her office and immediately thought: There’s no way I’m giving up Addy! I proceeded to buy different pillowcases, take a daily antihistamine, have my husband do the vacuuming, and close the door to the bedroom. I started giving up my precious snuggle time with Addy, but giving her up was unthinkable.
Well, guess what? The allergies worsened. The breathless episodes increased. We moved to a much larger home in a different state, but it didn’t help. I also had a baby at home to take care of, and managing my own health issues became a real challenge.
After one particularly scary night where I felt like I couldn’t breathe, I returned to an allergist.
This one scolded me vigorously. He said I’d been living with untreated allergic asthma and that the inside of my nose was white. That meant my nasal membranes were perpetually inflamed from allergic rhinitis. He immediately signed me up for allergy shots, although he said my allergies were severe enough that I was only a borderline candidate for them.
When he, too, suggested I give up the cat, I resisted again. As someone who’s volunteered at our local humane society, there was an unavoidable awareness of what could happen to a pet that is dropped off at the shelter. Even no-kill shelters often shift animals to different shelters when overcrowded, which can pose a risk of them being put to sleep if not adopted. I started crying. My life was beginning to be truly miserable. I still felt enormous guilt about not knowing about my allergies before I’d adopted my beloved kitty.
But I also felt guilt about the life my cat was living. I had to avoid cuddling her, she no longer slept with us, and my husband traveled too much to replace affection for her. While our home was preferable to a shelter, this was not the life for her I had intended at all when I adopted her.
Finally, something happened that made me wake up. I had a severe anaphylactic reaction from the buildup phase of my allergy shots. I was experiencing extreme difficulty breathing, severe anxiety, a rapid pulse, and dizziness. Even in this frightening state, I drove myself and my baby the five minutes to the allergist’s office and got an emergency steroid injection.
It was in that moment that I realized I wasn’t just risking my own health, but my baby’s safety too, when my husband was away and I was unable to step in or function properly. I finally put feelers out to my family to see if they would be willing to adopt Addy.
A happy ending came in the form of my mom, who loves cats, has no allergies to them, and is one of the most helpful people on the planet. She took in the furry baby, who experienced a level of snuggling, coddling, and attention that she hadn’t seen in years. I didn’t have to deal with the guilt of returning her to the shelter, and I could still see her from time to time. I could also keep taking the allergy shots to try and bring my health back under control.
Here’s what I learned, and what it took me years to figure out: Living with severe allergies is no joke, and reducing exposure to the offending allergens is the most proactive, simplest step you can take — even if the “allergen” is a beloved pet. If I could offer any advice to someone considering adopting a furry friend, it would simply be to have yourself tested first. You’re better off safe than sorry when considering whether you’re a good candidate for their forever home. And as you expand your family with animals or babies, you owe it to them and to yourself to protect your own health.
What are some ways to manage severe allergies?
Severe allergies can get in the way of your quality of life. You may have to skip school or work or even avoid going outside if the pollen counts are high. The first step in managing severe allergies is to find out what is causing your symptoms. Therefore, allergy testing is often suggested. Once you know what is causing your allergy symptoms, controlling or avoiding the offending agent would be the next step. Lastly, medication will help to alleviate your symptoms. Medications such as antihistamines and decongestants are often used. If those don’t help, allergy shots are then considered.Elaine Luo, MDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.