According to Allergy UK, the UK’s leading medical charity dealing with allergies, pets represent the second most important cause of home allergies in hoomans. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America confirms that in the US, three in ten people have allergic reactions to cats and dogs. And, interestingly, cat allergies seem to be twice as common as dog allergies. Life with cat allergies raises a lot of questions for all of us longing to keep a kitty. And Basepaws is here to answer them for you! From the causes and diagnosis, to the treatment and prevention, here is our guide through cat allergies.
Cat allergies are allergic reactions to allergens produced by cats. The job of our immune system is to fight off harmful substances (bacteria and viruses) with antibodies. However, an allergic person has oversensitive immune system that attacks harmless proteins present in cat’s saliva and dander (dead skin cells), the same way it would the dangerous invaders.
But how do allergic reactions exactly occur? One of the prominent contributors to all allergic reactions is histamine, and its levels have been noted to rise during allergic responses. Mainly stored in mast cells and basophils, histamine is a nitrogenous compound involved in immune responses, inflammatory responses, and regulation of the physiological function in the gut. It also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, spinal cord, and uterus. Histamine is just one of many mediators in allergic reactions, but it plays a primary role in allergic rhinitis, anaphylaxis, and asthma. Allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, is a type of inflammation in the nose that occurs as a result of an immune reaction to allergens in the air. Signs of allergic rhinitis are: a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, swelling, watering, and itchiness of the eyes.
What causes cat allergies?
Despite the common belief, the cat allergies are not caused by cat fur. The allergic reactions are actually triggered by the proteins present in cat’s saliva and dander (allergens). Five feline allergens have been described in the literature so far:
1. Fel d 1 (a secretoglobin)
2. Fel d 2 (an albumin)
3. Fel d 3 (a cystatin)
4. Fel d 4 (a lipocalin)
5. IgA (immunoglobin A)
Fel d 1 and Fel d 4 are considered the two major cat allergens. Fel d 1, a secretoglobin produced in cat’s saliva, sebaceous glands and skin, represents the primary cat allergen. On the other hand, Fel d 4 is a major urinary protein expressed in the submandibular salivary gland and deposited in cat’s dander.
Accordingly, it is estimated that over 90% of all cat allergies appear as reactions to allergens present in cat’s saliva and skin.
Furthermore, in the development of all allergies, genetics seem to play an important role. Therefore, if you have immediate family members experiencing allergies, you are more likely to experience them as well.
Symptoms and diagnosis
The symptoms of cat allergies may appear immediately or up to several days after the contact with cat allergens. Most common symptoms of cat allergies are coughing, sneezing, skin rashes, redness and itchiness of the eyes, runny or stuffy nose, fatigue and irritation of the skin where a cat has scratched, bitten or licked you.
It’s possible to take allergy tests and pinpoint what exactly the respective individual is sensitive to. There are two types of allergy tests:
a) Blood tests. Blood testing involves drawing a blood sample and testing it for antibodies to common allergens. The results may take longer, but this is usually more expensive, and it’s considered more precise and pain-free.
b) Skin tests, which bring fast results and are usually more affordable than the blood tests. Two types of skin testing can be conducted: a skin prick test and an intradermal skin test. In the first test, an allergist will prick the patient’s skin with a clean needle and deposit a small amount of the allergen on the skin. In the intradermal test, the allergens are injected under the skin. In both tests, the patient is typically tested for several allergens at the time. Positive reactions to allergens appear as red, itchy bumps on the skin.
Life with cat allergies: treatment and prevention
If you’re longing to keep a kitty, but you or any of your family members suffer from cat allergies, don’t get immediately discouraged. Sometimes, there may be a few tricks you can take to reduce the risk of allergic reactions. but you or any of your family members suffer from cat allergies, there may be a few tricks you can try in order to reduce the risk of allergic reactions.
a) Keep your distance and hand wash rigorously.
The first and most obvious advice is frequent hand washing, especially after handling a cat. The allergic family member should also be released from certain responsibilities, such as cat grooming or cleaning the litter box.
b) Restrict your cat to only certain areas.
You may want to consider limiting your kitty’s access to the rooms where the allergic hooman spends a lot of time in (particularly bedrooms). If your kitty is allowed outdoors, keeping it out as much as possible is also an option.
c) Clean thoroughly and often.
As allergens may survive for very long periods of time by themselves, removing and rigorously cleaning anything that can trap and hold the allergens (such as carpets, pillows, blankets etc.) is highly important. Using HEPA filters in vacuum cleaners is an excellent tool when catching allergens, as they tend to be finer than the regular filters. Central air cleaners can also be useful in order to control the circulation of the cat dander in the air.
d) Bathe and groom your cat regularly.
Regular baths and grooming sessions of you cat are essential for handling allergies, as this can help reduce the amount of loose dander and hair (with the saliva).
e) Keep the coat healthy.
Keeping your kitty’s coat strong and healthy will minimize the dander. A high-quality diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and regular brushing are key steps in maintaining a healthy and shiny feline coat.
f) Control your allergies with medication.
Like all allergies, cat allergies may also be controlled by medications such as antihistamines and decongestants. Antihistamines are available over-the-counter with Zyrtec, Benadryl, Allegra and Claritin being the most popular choices.
g) Choose a cat that is less likely to provoke an allergic reaction.
Some cats are known to produce lower levels of allergens in their saliva, dander and urine, which is why they are less likely to cause allergic reactions in sensitive people. These cats are described as hypoallergenic. While any cat can be potentially hypoallergenic, a few factors seem to be associated with the levels of allergens cats produce. These are breed, gender and neuter status.
Some cat breeds have been noted as hypoallergenic. It is important to remember that hypoallergenic breeds are simply cat breeds which are more likely to have cats that won’t cause allergic reactions. The large majority of these cat breeds will still have the potential to cause allergic reactions, so trial and error may be necessary. Some breeds suspected as potentially hypoallergenic are, for example, Siberian cats, Devon Rex, Cornish Rex cats, Abyssinian cats and Balinese cats. Some cats of these breeds have been noted to produce lower levels of Fel d 1 in comparison to other domestic cats. Therefore, if you’re sensitive to this particular allergen, then you may have a better chance of finding a hypoallergenic cat for yourself among these breeds. Other cats within Balinese cat lineage or ancestry may also have the potential of producing lesser amounts of allergens. These are Oriental Shorthair, Oriental Longhair and some Siamese cats. It has not yet been cleared out why all these breeds could have hypoallergenic cats though. One theory explains that the Balinese cat’s long-haired gene could be associated with the lower production of the protein allergens. This would explain why the Balinese, also known as the long-haired Siamese, is more often hypoallergenic than the regular, short-haired Siamese.
Gender and neuter status may also be associated with the levels of allergen production. Female cats produce a lower level of Fel d 1 than males, and neutered males produce a lower level of Fel d 1 than unneutered males. Neutered males produce similar levels of Fel d 1 to those in females. Please remember that, regardless of their breed, gender and neuter status, all cats may have a genetic potential of producing higher or lower levels of allergens. If you’re allergic – but you have experienced an allergy-free encounter with a feline – chances are that this furry kitty produced lower levels of the allergen(s) you are personally sensitive to.
If you’re a hopeless cat lover and you’re longing to get a kitty, you may be looking for ways around your cat allergy. If your reactions are mild, you may be able to control your allergy with the help of medicine and other practical tricks. You may also try to find a kitty that will be hypoallergenic for you. Because many different factors impact whether a cat will be hypoallergenic or not, trial and error may be in order. But, don’t get discouraged just yet. Consult with the doctor in order to identify what exactly triggers your allergies, and then take your search for the purrfect companion from there. Sometimes, low levels of allergens produced by a cat, combined with the steps to control allergies on your side, may result in a new, happy and pain-free friendship! Please remember that yours and your cat’s health come first and should never be jeopardized.
Did you know that your kitty can suffer from allergies too? To learn about allergies in cats make sure to read Achoo! Do You Have an Allergic Kitty?. And if you’re hungry for more cat science and health, we invite you to freely explore our blog and find the content tailored just for you. Have we not covered something you’re interested in? Ping us so we can do it!