Allergies to cats are more common than allergies to dogs and in some cases cat ownership is just not possible for those cursed with allergies. We discuss which breeds are more likely to upset allergy sufferers.
People with allergies to cats tend to react to the FEL D-1 protein that is found in the saliva and the sebaceous glands of cats. Cats tend to spread this protein all over their skin and hair when grooming. Theoretically long-haired cats have more of this protein on them, as there is increased surface area, compared to a cat with little to no hair.
Those cats that shed then spread the allergen throughout the home (and all over the furnishings and your nice black suit). The protein is also contained in dander, which are microscopic dead skin cell that are constantly being shed into the environment and also end up everywhere. All cats spread dander all over the home, just as humans do from their own skin, so there is no escaping dander. This is why there is no true allergen-free cat. Hypoallergenic cats simply have a few characteristics that make them less likely to cause allergies.
Is it really a cat allergy?
Allergic humans can also react to the pollen granules or other environmental allergens that get trapped in pet hair, so if you are not 100% sure the allergy is to cats it might be useful to get allergy tested via your immunologist. Allergen levels in individual cats vary, sometimes on a seasonal basis and they also vary within breeds, so a cat may be okay at certain times but trigger allergies during a change of season.
In many cases a person may have multiple allergies and the cat can just be the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ and tip them over the edge. Reducing exposure to other allergens may actually make the cat more tolerable by reducing overall allergen load.
Characteristics of hypoallergenic cats
Hypoallergenic cats share certain characteristics that make them less likely to cause allergies, so they may be tolerated by people more than other breeds. However there is no true allergen-free cat and within breeds there are huge variations in allergen status. Unfortunately 25% of Rex cats in shelters were relinquished due to this confusion, with owners thinking they would not cause allergies and this not being the case.
The FEL D-1 allergen that cats carry in their skin, sebaceous glands and saliva is shed in dander and carried on hair. Some breeds such as Siberians, Bengals and Balinese are thought to carry less of the protein in their skin, so are considered hypoallergenic.
Cats that have a short hair coat or even no hair at all are also considered low allergen as they will groom less and have less surface area for the allergen to accumulate on. Rex’s are considered hypoallergenic due to their short, sparse undercoats that don’t shed much at all. Oriental shorthairs have a very short coat, as do Russian Blues and Siamese, so are considered hypoallergenic for this reason.The ultimate in hairless cats is the Sphynx.
Entire males and even desexed males generally, are more likely to cause allergies, as are darker-haired cats and kittens. The theory about darker-haired cats is based on one study which showed that dark-haired cats were 4 times more likely to trigger allergies, but in subsequent studies this was not the case. Theoretically a light-coloured, female cat that would stay a kitten forever could be less likely to trigger allergies.
Some hypoallergenic cat breeds:
Additional tips for allergy suffers
- If you are considering a cat, first ‘borrow’ the cat or foster on a trial to see whether this cat triggers your allergies, bearing in mind you may have delayed allergies rather than an immediate reaction. You can do a similar thing by rubbing a towel on the cat in question, then having the allergy sufferer hold and breathe in the allergens on the towel. Some people have worsening of asthma symptoms due to living with a cat and this can take a few weeks to occur, so give the trial a month just in case if asthma is the issue. Of course you don’t want to do this test if you know the person has a severe cat allergy!
- Consider regular bathing of the cat to reduce allergens on the coat, with shampoos like Aloveen. You can also rub the cat down with a damp towel on a daily basis. The allergen levels are much higher around the face, so pay particular attention to this area.
- Brush your cat daily to remove excess hair and dander. Ideally this should be done by the non-allergic person in the household.
- Wash cat bedding on a hot cycle in the washing machine weekly.
- Consider keeping the cat mainly outdoors in a cat run, out of the carpeted areas of the home or away from any areas with thick, heavy curtains.
- Keep your home well ventilated, use exhaust fans and HEPA filters.
- Wash your hands after touching the cat and avoid touching your eyes or face.
- Ensure fleas and any allergies the cat may have are kept under control, as over-grooming will lead to more of the allergen in the coat.
- Consider allergy testing and if possible immunotherapy to desensitize yourself if your allergies are becoming intolerable. Your doctor can refer you to an immunologist.