Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.
Allergies are as mysterious as they are frustrating. Our immune systems decide they don’t like something and wage all-out war against the invader, wreaking more havoc on our bodies than the otherwise harmless substances they’re attacking.
Allergic reactions to cats can be as mild as sneezing and itching when you touch the cat and then touch your own skin without washing your hands in between. My husband, Mark, falls into this category and exhibited mild reactions to our cats before we got engaged. Reactions can also be dangerously severe, resulting in an asthmatic attack or anaphylactic shock just when you enter a room that has or had cats in it. (If you have severe allergies, talk to your doctor before even considering living with a cat.)
Whether you or your loved one’s allergies are mild or severe, try these 10 tips to minimize the allergens in your home.
These doctors have an arsenal of weapons, such as medication and immunotherapy, to help you in your battle against allergens. Holistic allergy remedies — acupuncture, for example — also can provide relief. An allergy specialist can pinpoint exactly what you are allergic to, which can help you to avoid or minimize the allergen.
Felines are creatures of habit and usually have a couple of favorite spots where they groom the most, right before taking a nice nap. When cats groom, they transfer allergens from their saliva to their skin, which dries and creates dander that can settle on fabric or become airborne.
Needless to say, if you’re allergic, your cat’s nap area of choice is not the best place for you to lounge. Throw a washable blanket over her favorite sleeping spots to easily clean away the allergens. Another strategy: Make the cat’s bedroom the same room you used to transition her when you brought her home, says Kate Stryker, a Siberian cat breeder from Buffalo, New York.
Hard surfaces like tile, hardwood, and laminate make life easier in general for people with pets. It’s a lot simpler to thoroughly remove allergens and clean accidents from these surfaces than it is from carpeting. Just steam clean or wet mop weekly.
Allergens love fabric and can make themselves at home on it and remain stable for a year, Stryker said. So if you have curtains, wash them monthly. Allergens are less likely to cling to harder surfaces such as vertical blinds; you can just wipe those down with a damp cloth weekly without having to remove and rehang.
Replace heating and air conditioning filters monthly to once every three months, depending on the type of system you have. Also, have the air ducts cleaned every three to seven years. You should do this whether or not you suffer from allergies, but it is essential if you are allergic.
Consider room air filters for the allergic person’s bedroom, cat’s room, or other rooms in your house. Also, a whole-house filter can be installed in your furnace’s ductwork.
“Using an electrostatic air filter on your furnace and adding a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter helps to remove the floating hairs and dust particles that carry the dander and allergen proteins about your home,” Stryker said. “If you have radiators or electric baseboard heat, invest in high-quality room air-filtration units.”
Carpeting and upholstery are allergen magnets, so vacuum carpets and upholstered furniture every week with your HEPA vacuum cleaner. If you’re the allergic person, ideally this should not be your chore, but if it is, wear a dust mask. If your eyes are sensitive, also wear goggles.
Weekly bathing and daily brushing removes allergens from cats’ fur and reduces airborne allergens. Dampen your cat’s fur with a grooming solution beforehand to reduce airborne allergens while brushing. (Bathing and brushing should be done by someone without allergies, if possible.)
For sound, restorative sleep, we all need an allergen-free zone. Sleeping in a room or bed full of allergens of any kind, whether dust mites or dander, can cause you to wake up with a stuffy nose and headache. You especially want to keep all bedding, surrounding window treatments, and flooring clean. Make the bedroom the allergy sufferer’s safe haven.
Litter boxes can cause the most severe reactions in people with asthma, because urine and feces contain allergens and because the litter itself can be dusty. Clean litter boxes daily and change the litter weekly, and keep the litter box in a well-ventilated area. Use a dust-free litter, such as pine or newspaper pellets, or one specially made for people or cats with respiratory issues.
Because all cats produce Fel d 1, the protein responsible for most cat-specific allergies, technically there are no hypoallergenic cats. But some cats produce such low levels of Fel d 1, that even people with the severest allergies don’t react.
If you’re allergic to cats, Fel d 1 is the most likely culprit. Cats shed it in their saliva, skin oils, feces, and urine.
“Cats have at least five different common allergens,” said Leslie A. Lyons, professor of comparative medicine at the University of Missouri’s veterinary college.
She explained that Fel d 1 is cat specific, while Fel d 2, 3, 4, and 5 are found in other animals as well.
Interestingly, people who react to horses and rabbits are most likely to react to the secondary allergens in cats, said Tom Lundberg, a Siberian
cat breeder from Stayton, Oregon, who worked with the University of California, Davis, on an unpublished cat allergen study. If you’re not allergic to horses and rabbits but are allergic to cats, you’re almost certainly allergic to Fel d 1, which is found in exceptionally low amounts in about 1 in 15 Siberians, he said.
After testing fur and saliva samples from Siberian cat breeders, Indoor Biotechnologies in Charlottesville, Virginia, concluded that about 50 percent of Siberians have lower Fel d 1 levels than other cats, and about 15 percent of Siberians have levels so low that they can be safely placed in homes where people have severe allergies to cats.
In addition to sending samples to Indoor Biotechnologies, some Siberian breeders do their own allergy testing by simply allowing potential adopters to spend time with the cats. Katye McDorman, a Siberian cat breeder in Greenbrier, Tennessee, allows allergy sufferers to spend about an hour or so petting and holding her cats to gauge their reactions.
“Occasionally we have someone who has a reaction after they leave,” but that is rare, she said.
McDorman said she finds the process rewarding: “It’s quite refreshing to see someone who avoided cats all their lives finally be able to hold kittens, adopt them, and be able to take them home.”
Kathleen Delp, a Siberian cat breeder in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, tests all of her cats once they reach 10 months of age. She sends hair samples from the top layer and underside of her cats’ coats to Indoor Biotechnologies, which tests the Fel d 1 levels.
“I know who is my lowest and who is my highest,” she said.
If it’s Fel d 1 that they’re allergic to, allergy sufferers don’t typically react to her low-Fel d 1 cats.
To date, 13 allergenic proteins have been identified in cats, according to Siberian Research Inc. This might explain why some of Delp’s allergic customers react to her low-Fel d 1 red and silver cats.
“They come here and hold a kitten, and they might not have an issue with a black-and-brown tabby, but they’ll have an issue with the silvers,” she said, adding that there might be another protein associated with the silver and red coat colors.
But Fel d 1 is still responsible for at least 60 percent of the allergic reactions, and most of the studies have focused on this one protein. Delp said about 99 percent of the people who have adopted her cats have allergies. In one family, four members were allergic, and all of them are okay with her cats.
“Some even have two kittens and do fine with them,” she said.
To her, hypoallergenic means lower than normal, a level that people can handle.
“I have had people with asthma adopt cats from me and sleep with them,” she said.
Lyons stressed caution, because some allergies can be life-threatening, and added that there is neither a definitive allergy test nor a scientific paper that substantiates the claims made by one.
“You can still get sensitized at your allergen doctor, but that can be an expensive long-term treatment,” she said. “If you’re allergic to Fel d 1, then a hypoallergenic cat will help you. There are probably many cats that produce low allergen, but we’ve noted it in the Siberians, and it’s a high frequency in the Siberians.”
She explained that Sphynx and Cornish Rex are assumed to be low allergenic, but that they “still produce all the cat allergen, but don’t have as much fur to carry it throughout the environment.” Lyons still believes that there are hypoallergenic cats among other breeds and even among mixed-breed cats.
As I mentioned, my husband, Mark, was allergic to cats when we started dating. Whenever he came to my house, he would cough, wheeze, and itch if he didn’t wash his hands after petting my cats. Fortunately, his allergies disappeared by the time we got engaged.
That’s because of a process called accommodation, in which people with a tolerable allergy level are exposed to an allergen constantly, and their body learns to tolerate it, said Lundberg, the Siberian breeder from Oregon.
“But if you go on vacation for two weeks, you lose it and you have to start over again,” he said.
A 2011 study published in the journal Clinical & Experimental Allergy showed that children exposed to cats before age 1 have half the risk of developing pet allergies later in life. That’s great news for pet-loving parents. In other cases, people who have never suffered from allergies can develop them later in life, because of hormonal changes or excessive exposure to pollution, pollen, dust mites, or mold.
Didn’t I say that allergies are mysterious? We might not be able to explain all of them, but we can manage the effect they have on our lives.
About the author: Susan Logan-McCracken was the editor of CAT FANCY for 11 years. She is allergic to several things, but thankfully cats are not one of them. Her husband Mark’s allergies to their red tabbies, Madison and Sophie, mysteriously disappeared right before they got engaged.