The truth about cats is that they are beloved pets and a common source of allergens. A quarter of the population may suffer from cat allergy. And although kids often swoon over kittens, parents should know that an estimated 14 percent of children between the ages of six and 19 years old are allergic to cats.
Cat allergy is triggered by allergens found in cat saliva, especially the protein Fel d 1, which cats spread over their bodies when they lick themselves clean. This and other allergens are in dander from the glands in cats fur and skin. Male cats that are not neutered tend to produce large amounts of allergen that stays in the air, is sticky, and lingers in public places. These factors make cat allergies particularly problematic for large numbers of allergy sufferers, even those who do not have a pet cat.
Like dogs [link to dog allergy article], most cats are furry animals and gather dust, pollen, and other allergens that trigger allergic reactions in people, such as wheezing, sneezing, and coughing. Avoiding cat and other pet dander is difficult because it adheres to clothing, carpeting and other furnishings.
Has allergy to cats dampened the popularity of kitties as pets? Far from it. Today, 33 percent of U.S. households own at least one cat and 52 percent of cat owners have more than one of these fluffy friends.
Cat allergy is triggered when the animals allergens land on facial membranes and cause eyes to itch, tear, and burn and the nose to get stuffy. There is some evidence of a link between cat allergyand asthma symptoms; one recent study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that cat allergens accounted for 29 percent of asthma cases.
When there are low levels of allergens or low sensitivity to them, cat allergy symptoms may take time to appear. In some people, symptoms can be more severe and come on fast, such as when airborne particles get into the lungs, are inhaled, and mix with antibodies. Highly sensitive people can experience severe breathing problems within 15 minutes to 30 minutes and get a rash on the upper chest, neck, and face.
Unfortunately for feline fanatics, claims that there are cats free of allergens, or that some breeds are hypoallergenic, are not supported by the evidence.
Diagnosis and Treatment
An allergist can help diagnose and treat those who are allergic to cats. Along with the patients medical history, skin-prick tests or blood tests may be used by allergists to diagnosis feline allergies.
To treat symptoms, an allergist may recommend various types of therapies depending on their severity and frequency. Time spent in a cat free environment can gradually improve symptoms. An allergist may treat periodic symptoms like coughing and sneezingwith nose sprays or antihistamine pills. Prolonged exposure could creat inflammation and require a more aggressive approach. If avoidance is impractical, anti-inflammatory medications, the strongest of which are topical steroids, may be necessary to control symptoms. For those with moderate or severe perennial allergic rhinitis (PAR)year-round pet allergiesallergists may recommend allergen immunotherapy allergy shots which has shown success in patients with pet-induced PAR. Allergy shots gradually improve tolerance to the cat allergen.
Other therapiesincluding a cat allergy vaccinemay be on the horizon. A team of immunologists in the United Kingdom in 2011 identified a cell component that might play a key role in triggering allergic responses to cat dander and lead to new treatments.Another 2011 study tested a peptide vaccine in cat-allergic individuals and found it to be safe and effective. If this peptide immunotherapy is made availablefurther clinical trials are taking placepatients would get a low dose of the vaccine into the skin.
The most effective defense against cat allergies is to avoid cat dander. Yet this is an unrealistic recommendation for the millions of cat-allergy sufferers who do not want to part with their furry companions and because of the persistence of cat dander in the environment.
Cat owners can take steps to reduce overall levels of allergens, including limiting the cats access to bedroomswhere people spend most of their timeusing air filters, frequent and proper house cleaning, and using furnishings less likely to harbor allergens. Neutering cats as well as bathing and wiping them on a daily basis may decrease owners allergen exposure.
To learn more, talk with an allergist in your area.