When your cat relaxes on your favorite recliner, does it set off an instant sneezing attack? When your cat frolics through the room, do your eyes water relentlessly? Take heart, because you’re definitely not alone. Thousands of cat lovers are allergic to their pets. In fact, Web MD estimates that cat allergies are twice as common as dog allergies. But that doesn’t need to keep us apart from our best friends. Before you rule out the possibility of owning a cat — or worse, before you consider finding your cat a brand new home — I’m here to provide firsthand reassurance that happy healthy cohabitation with a cat is often possible.
I’ve owned and fostered cats (and dogs) since I was in junior high school. I wasn’t allowed to have a pet any earlier because an allergist told my parents I should “never have animals in the house” due to allergies and chronic congestion. For me, unfortunately, a major culprit was dander. But there’s an added dimension to cat allergies that isn’t always recognized. Many of us with cat allergies are extra-sensitive to certain proteins that are present in a cat’s saliva and urine. These proteins exist in dogs as well; but according to Laurie Picha, a nurse and allergy technician at Midwest ENT Consultants, cat proteins often seem to set off a stronger human reaction. This is why so-called “hypoallergenic” breeds like the nearly hairless Sphinx might not eliminate symptoms.
Maybe my allergist was correct, though I believe the term “health” refers to a lot more than physical wellness. Owning a pet just helps to enhance my general sense of contentment. That’s why I’m so thankful my family eventually chose to go against the allergist’s advice. Granted, this might not be the best solution for everyone. But if you’re coping with cat-related allergies, here are some tactics that have worked well for me.
1. Make sure your cat is causing the reactions
Pet allergies can be subtly chronic, such as annoying low-level congestion. And sometimes, a cat isn’t even the culprit. If you have an outdoor cat, your pet’s fur might carry pollen or dust that can cause a symptom flare-up. So I’m glad my allergist suggested skin testing as a first step. These relatively painless, intradermal studies expose your skin to small samples of allergy-triggering elements.
You’ll be required to forgo antihistamines temporarily for an accurate result. If that’s not an option for you — or if your allergic reactions are especially intense — you can request a radioallergosorbent blood test to check for antibodies. Laurie Picha notes that a so-called RAST is helpful, but skin testing often provides more detailed information on environmental allergies. Your findings might yield concrete data that puts your pet in the clear.
2. Adjust your cat’s diet
Cats are known as “obligate carnivores,” meaning they require meat protein in their diets to survive. While they can process carbohydrates and grains, they don’t do so in the same way we humans do. In fact, a diet that leans too heavily toward crunchy kibble or treats can lead to yeast issues, drying out cats’ skin and prompting a scratch-fest that will worsen your allergies. We put our cat Ben on a lower-carb, Nature’s Variety Instinct diet rich in salmon oil and Omega-3s. We also avoided excess bathing — not only because it would further irritate Ben’s skin, but because he tended to destroy the house and disfigure family members at the mere sight of standing water. Pet wipes were our sanity-saving solution, whisking away surface dander and proteins while greatly minimizing trips to the emergency room.
3. Change your environment to reduce pet dander
My allergist told us that animal dander is lightweight and fluffy, so it tends to stay airborne for quite a while. Rigorous vacuuming can stir up these allergens without removing them. This doesn’t mean I can stop vacuuming (dang it), but it does mean air purifiers with HEPA filters can make a major difference — especially in rooms where our family spends a lot of time. Other tactics we’ve tried:
- Installing wood or tile floors where practical, because carpet traps a lot of dander.
- Washing clothing/bedding/linens often, preferably in the warmest water they’re designed to withstand.
- Using washable furniture covers and throws — a total lifesaver. Plastic mattress covers can help as well.
- Wiping down floors and walls every two weeks with mild, unscented soap.
- Wearing an inexpensive face mask during dust-intensive cleaning sessions.
If you have pronounced congestion or asthma, it’s best to keep your cat out of the bedroom (where you spend roughly a third of your life) and off furniture that you use most often.
4. Increase use of anti-allergy drugs
Sometimes, taking a simple daily antihistamine is all you need to keep pet allergies under control. For more persistent problems, consider the risks and benefits of intranasal corticosteroids such as Flonase and Nasacort, which are available over the counter. Uncontrolled symptoms might require more rigorous intervention, in which case you might consider immunotherapy like I did. Administered by an allergist, these subcutaneous injections strengthen immunity to animal dander and proteins over time. The tiny needles are basically painless — and for me, they were key to a more symptom-free life with my kitties.
If you believe you are suffering from feline-related allergies, talk with your doctor and try some of the strategies mentioned above. It could lead to a life of cat-loving contentment.
About the author: Marybeth Bittel is a freelance writer who lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, her crazy rescue dog Grant, and her level-headed rescue dog Maizy – all of them Heinz 57 mixed breed types. Marybeth identifies as mostly Italian, so she enjoys feeding family, friends and furkids almost as much as Grant and Maizy enjoy eating. She’s also a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. Connect with her on LinkedIn or — to see her latest pet pics (and be careful what you wish for here) — check out her family Instagram feed.