So You Have Cat Allergies—Here’s What You Should Know

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  • Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.

Are you a cat lover with an allergy to your favorite furry friend? Well, you are definitely not alone. As many as 3 in 10 people with allergies have a pet allergy, according to The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Allergies often develop over time, and people can age out of or into an allergy, sometimes taking a pet owner by surprise.

I talked to Stevie, a 35-year-old Seattleite who recently discovered an allergy to their two adult Maine Coon cats.

“I started to notice that after I was in an enclosed space with my cats for a while I would have a lot of drainage from my sinuses,” Stevie said. Stevie thought it was the start of a cold at first, but when it went on for several weeks, they knew something else was up.

Lots of cat owners either develop an allergy to cats they already have or will find out they have an allergy after moving into a smaller, more confined space with kitty.

So what is a sniffly cat enthusiast to do? Luckily there are plenty of ways to help ease the symptoms of pet allergy without necessarily having to cut cats out of your life.

The science behind the sneezes

An allergic reaction is caused when a sensitive immune system perceives a harmless substance as a threat, or allergen, and tries to fight it off in the same way it would a virus or bacteria. That’s why it can be hard to tell the difference between an environmental allergy and the common cold.

Fel d 1 is the protein in cat saliva that causes an allergic reaction. It sticks to the cat’s fur when they groom themselves, and after the saliva dries, the particles flake off and float around the house, sticking to furniture, clothes, and other surfaces.

The cats with the highest Fel d 1 levels are unneutered males, but neutered males still have higher levels than females, making female cats a more prudent choice for allergy sufferers.

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Diagnosis and treatment

Pet allergies can cause a reaction within minutes of contact in more severe cases, while a milder allergy may not cause any symptoms to show until after a few days of contact.

Reactions include:

  • Swelling and itching of the membranes
  • Stuffy nose and sneezing.
  • Redness or itching on the skin, due to a bite or scratch
  • Itchy eyes (usually caused by petting an animal then touching your eyes)

For some, exposure can cause severe breathing problems. Highly sensitive people can begin coughing, wheezing and have shortness of breath within 15 to 30 minutes of inhaling allergens. Some highly sensitive people also get an intense rash on the face, neck and upper chest.

Contact with a cat can trigger an asthma episode (asthma attack) in children, even if kids are exposed to cat allergens in a neutral space like school. One study noticed a nine-fold increase in asthma symptoms when children were in classrooms with cat owners. Cat allergies also can lead to chronic asthma.

If you think you have a pet allergy, visit an allergist for a formal diagnosis. Bring with you a list of questions you’d like to ask about your specific symptoms, needs, and circumstances. They’ll ask you to describe your symptoms and medical history, give your throat and nasal passages a once-over in search of irritation and inflammation and will use either a skin or blood test to confirm a suspected allergy.

Once your allergy is confirmed, talk to your doctor about allergy medications and treatment. While there are plenty of over-the-counter allergy medications and nasal sprays available at your local drugstore, your doctor will assess your medical history and symptoms to find the best course of action and may prescribe a corticosteroid or decongestant to aid in symptom relief or enroll you in an immunotherapy program.

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What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy, or “allergy shots” is a series of injections that, over time, desensitize the immune system to an allergen in order to lessen the reaction.

Allergy shots contain just enough allergens to stimulate your immune system, but not enough to cause a full-blown allergic reaction. This allows your immune system to build up a tolerance to the allergen, causing your symptoms to decrease with time. Aka, you’ll hopefully be able to cuddle your kitty without feeling stuffy for days.

Immunotherapy is beneficial to pet allergy sufferers because while you can control exposure to the dander in your own home, you cannot control the number of allergens you encounter out in the world. Some pet allergy sufferers can have a reaction triggered by simply being in close proximity to a person with cat hair on their clothing, or residual dander in a place that hasn’t housed a cat for years.

Home remedies

If you prefer a more holistic approach, there are plenty of natural allergy relief treatments to try. Some people swear by nettles, garlic, and bioflavinoids. The Neti Pot is great for nasal irrigation, but be sure to use purified water. I personally have experienced a lot of benefits from acupuncture for allergy symptoms.

What about hypoallergenic cats?

Luckily, there are some breeds that are less likely to set off symptoms than others. While there aren’t any truly “hypoallergenic” cats, these breeds produce less Fel d 1 or shed less than others and are a better fit for allergic people. Seek out a reputable breeder and visit before adoption to find out whether you are reactive to the breed.

We’ve got a whole list of hypoallergenic cat breeds for you to consider, but here is a handful to start:

Sphynx

This is the cat that likely springs to mind when you hear the phrase “hypoallergenic cat.” Affectionate and intelligent, this visually striking cat makes an excellent companion. Because of their hairlessness, there is no airborne hair to trigger allergic responses, plus the Sphynx produces a lower level of Fel d 1 than most cats.

Devon Rex

Devon Rex cats have fascinating, impish features and a coat that varies from a velvety, wavy coat, to long, curly fur. Known as a “dog-like” cat, this breed is clever, fun-loving, and playful. These guys need a lot of love and affection and can’t bear to be away from their people for long periods of time.

Siberian

Siberian cats are another breed that produces a lower level of Fel d 1. These gorgeous longhairs are naturally inclined to love playing in the water and can easily be trained from kittenhood to enjoy bathtime. Siberians are noted for their easygoing, calm personalities.

How to deal with cat allergens in your home

Beyond medications and natural remedies, there are some environmental changes you can make to help reduce the allergens floating around your home.

Designate a cat-free space

One of the most vital changes you can make is to designate your bedroom a Cat-Free Space. I hear you, I hear you—what about all the snuggles you’ll miss? Not gonna lie, kicking kitty out of bed isn’t an easy thing to do. But giving your body a chance to rest while you sleep can make a huge difference in managing your cat allergy.

Once you’ve decided to make the change, it’s time to deep clean the entire room.

Deep clean checklist:

  • Vacuum the mattress, carpet, and rugs
  • Dust dresser, side tables, etc.
  • Get all the dust bunnies hiding under the furniture
  • Wipe down the walls

Pay special attention to any nooks or crannies of which your cat is especially fond. It’s worthwhile—if a bit of a splurge—to replace your bedding. Short of that, you should be sure to wash bedding in hot water and change sheets twice a week. And make sure you always change clothes before getting in bed!

Give your cat more time (safely) outside

If you have the resources, consider building a catio so your cat can spend time outside in peace and safety, while also lessening the allergenic load inside your home. Catios can range from a simple window box to a whole souped-up cat playground. Poke around and find an option that fits your space and budget.

Clear the air

High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) air purifiers and vent filters can help reduce airborne pet allergens. Another way to cut allergens is by using a vacuum with a HEPA filter on all surfaces, including upholstered furniture and curtains. Be sure to use wear a mask when using your HEPA vacuum, as vacuuming kicks up a lot of dust.

Speaking of surfaces, a major allergen hot spot you can eliminate is carpeting and upholstery. The deeper the pile, the more Fel d 1 can build up, lurking between the fibers. Pull up carpets and replace with laminate or wood flooring, and minimize the number of rugs you keep around, opting for low pile or flat-woven throw rugs.

Grooming is key

Regularly bathing your cat (think weekly!) will help reduce allergens in the home. Some allergists recommend using special shampoos to draw away dander, but others say water is fine.

Not all cats greet the idea of a bath with open paws. Luckily, you can use cat wipes and save yourself some inconvenience (and possible injury). Have an allergy-free household member take on the role of Designated Cat Washer.

With some resourcefulness and effort, your cat allergy doesn’t have to mean eliminating cats from your life. Unless the allergy is severe, there are lots of ways to control your environment and symptoms such that you and kitty can coexist peacefully. Whether you choose to try medication, immunotherapy, altering which parts of the house your cats inhabit, or some combination of the above, you’ve got options.

Rehoming your cat

You may still find that in spite of your best efforts, your allergy requires you to find a new home for your feline friend. This is not an easy decision to arrive at, but you are the one that knows what is best for you and your cat.

Rehoming can happen very quickly, especially if you have a kitten or purebred cat, or it can take weeks to months. Here are some suggestions from rescue experts:

  • Prepare your cat for rehoming by having them spayed or neutered, and make sure all of their shots are up to date.
  • Reach out to your friends, family, and social networks first to find a new home for your cat.
  • If your immediate social networks don’t get results, try NextDoor and other social media to cast a wider net. Include lots of adorable, high-quality photos that showcase your cat’s personality
  • Use a flyer-creation service like PetBond to make a visually compelling, detail-rich flyer to post on social media and Wall around your neighborhood. Focus on places where cat people are likely to see it: food-co-ops, libraries, pet food stores, etc.
  • If your cat is a specific breed, contact a breed rescue group to find people looking for a cat just like yours.
  • Screen potential adopters carefully. Conduct a home visit and ask for personal references.
  • Shelters are overloaded and underresourced. While it may seem simplest to hand your cat over for rehoming, you are more able to devote resources to rehoming this one cat. Plus, even the best shelter setting is stressful for a cat and can result in anxiety and illness.
  • If all your resources and networks are exhausted and you need to surrender your cat to a shelter, research local facilities seeking out options with a high “save rate.”

Again, giving up your cat is certainly not ideal, but the greatest cure to any ill is prevention. And for those of us who have no choice but to admire cats from afar, well, there’s no shortage of cat content on the internet, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

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