Can you guess the No. 1 cause of permanent, career-ending disability for companion-animal veterinarians? You might be tempted to guess dog mauling, cat scratch fever, or cat bite infections, but you would be wrong. How about debilitating “compassion fatigue” (which is the currently de rigueur euphemism for “burnout”)? Not quite: While compassion fatigue is common to the point of ubiquity in veterinarians, it seems that insurance companies won’t pay out on it, so it isn’t a common cause of official permanent disability. The correct answer is allergies. Most specifically, allergies to cats.
I was surprised to learn this fact from my insurance company many years ago. But in hindsight I should not have been. Cat dander is a leading allergen in people, and people with cat allergies can suffer from severe and progressive symptoms. A person with cat allergies often will be relegated to a life without cats in it. Such a life, for a veterinarian, also often means the end of a career.
Vets are relatively unique as people whose cat allergies can end their careers. But they are not at all unique in suffering from cat allergies. Plenty of folks are allergic to cats. This brings up the question: Might there be some types of cats who won’t trigger allergies, and which might allow allergic people to bring some feline love into the house? Do hypoallergenic cats exist?
The answer is … kind of.
First of all, let’s shatter a myth. Most people believe that cat hair is what causes allergies. In fact, cat hair itself is not always the real culprit. One of the most common feline allergen is a protein called Fel d 4, which occurs in the saliva. Cats transfer plenty of this protein to their hair during their normal grooming, and the hair then carries the protein to the noses of allergic people. But the main problem is often the saliva more than the hair.
Therefore, hairless cats such as Sphynxes still can cause allergies.
Also, some readers may have noted the number 4 in Fel d 4. That number implies that there are other feline allergens. And indeed there are. Fel d 1 is another major allergen. Fel d 2 and Fel d 3 are minor allergens. Another common allergen, IgA, also has been reported, and I’ll bet that there are dozens of yet-to-be-discovered feline allergens lurking around.
Different cats produce different quantities and proportions of the various allergens. And different people have different reactions to the different allergens. This means that it is virtually impossible to state that any cat will be universally hypoallergenic. However, people with cat allergies may react more or less to certain individual cats depending upon the ratios of the allergens produced by the cats.
Some breeds of cats appear, on average, to produce relatively smaller quantities of the major allergens. Abyssinians, Devon Rexes, and Siberians all are purported to fit this bill. However, individual cats may produce more of the allergens than average members of their breeds, so a person with cat allergies may still suffer from symptoms when exposed to a member of a “hypoallergenic cats” breed.
A company named Allerca has earned notoriety for selling (at very high prices) cats who are purported to have been genetically engineered to be hypoallergenic cats. The company’s claims have been met with a bit of skepticism, but the cats are still for sale (if you have an extra $7,000 to $28,000 to spend). I don’t have much experience with these animals, so I’d be curious to hear the experiences of anyone who owns one. Genetically engineered hypoallergenic cats are a great idea in theory, but I have yet to see significant evidence that practice matches theory — at least for now.
Although in my experience no cat can be called definitively hypoallergenic, you can take steps to reduce the effect of cats on allergic people who live with them.
First, if you have cat allergies, remember that some individuals will likely impact you more than others. If you meet enough cats, you may be able to find (and live with) one whose production of allergens meshes well with your allergy profile.
Also, remember that hygiene can impact allergy. Regular vacuuming can reduce the allergenic load in the house. Bathing your cat can reduce the amount of allergens on his hair and skin.
Many people with cat allergies are able to live with cats if they take occasional antihistamines, or if they receive treatment from a qualified allergist. And be aware that there are some promising treatments, such as an anti-allergy vaccine, being studied for future use. Some day even people with severe cat allergies may be able to experience feline love.
If you’re a cat lover with cat allergies, I’d love to hear your survival tips in the comments.
Cat allergies can get in the way of everyday life. Read Holly Tse’s conundrum, “Keep My Cat — or My Boyfriend, Who Has a Cat Allergy?” To lessen the effects of cat allergies, here are some grooming tools help reduce the amount of cat hair in your house. And, read more on the top hypoallergenic cats for people with allergies right here.
Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)