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Hypoallergenic Cats - Do They Exist?

Written by Tonia Marsh

Devon Rex

Before I discuss what is causing the allergies I have some interesting facts for you.

  • Around 2-15% of the worlds population is allergic to cats and 1/3 of these have a cat in their home.
  • Up to 40% of Asthma sufferers are sensitive to cats.
  • A large proportion of cats surrendered to shelters are from allergic pet owners.
  • Up to 25% of Rex cats that are in need of assistance from rescue organizations are there because their new owners cannot cope with their allergic reaction to their Rex cat. Cats bought because of their so-called hypoallergenic nature.
  • Many allergic people report more or less allergic reactions to individual cats.
  • Considerable allergen variation exists between cats and at differing times the same cat.
  • Allergic Symptoms may not occur until there have been several days or weeks of continuous exposure to the cat.
  • There have been reports of both, reductions or an increase in symptoms after long-term exposure to cats.
  • An asthma study by Thomas Platts-Mills, MD, PhD and his colleagues showed that high exposure to cat allergen appears to be protective for some children and a risk factor for others.
  • The prefix "hypo" means "less than" and thus the word hypoallergenic tells the kitten/cat buyer that the breeder believes the cat to to produce fewer allergens than other cats. How is this measured or regulated - well it isn't. There are no legal regulations defining allergens (let alone allergens in cats), nor are there any guidelines. So the world "hypoallergenic" has very little meaning.
  • Male cats produce more allergen than female cats and neutered males produce less than non-neutered males (but not always).
  • Kittens produce less allergen than adult cats.
  • A study of 321 patients with allergies showed that dark-coloured cats where 4 times more likely to cause more sneezing, wheezing and overall allergy-symptom than light-coloured cats did.
  • Another study showed cat allergen levels in domestic living rooms are not related to cat colour or hair length.
  • Woollen sweaters retain more cat allergens than cotton tops even after washing.


What causes the Allergies?

Siberian catThe primary cause of allergic reactions to cats is caused by allergens found in the cat sebaceous glands in the cat's skin, such as the allergenic glycoprotein called Fel D1 (short for "Felis domesticus"), it is also secreted via saliva in lesser quantities. When cats lick themselves, they spread this protein, which is rather sticky, and glues itself onto dust particles, the home, your clothing and their fur; whether it's long, short, straight, curly, or absent. As all cats have sebaceous glands, all cat breeds can potentially cause allergies. Allergic allergens are also found in the faeces, serum, urine, mucous, dander, and hair roots of the cat.

Cat allergen is incredibly pervasive and even after the cat has been removed, the cat allergen can remain throughout the home for up to 6 months and up to 4 years in the cats bedding. The allergen has been found in almost 1/3 of non-cat owner's homes and on the clothing of co-workers who don't own any cats, and in doctor's surgeries and schools. And yes, they even found cat allergen in the Antarctic (where no cat has ever been). Cat allergen is about 10 times smaller than pollen or dust particles it is so small that it easily penetrates the bronchial membranes.

It is also very important to note that up to 50% of people who are allergic to cats will not get any immediate symptoms. So always check with your Dr first via skin prick tests and have multiple visits to catteries, over a period of months to test your reaction to particular breeds.

And remember before you blame the cat for your itchy and watery eyes, constant sneezing or runny nose, go and get allergy tested, as the cat may not be to blame after all.

Why can some people allergic to cats, tolerate rex cats?

In truth, a rex cat is no different from any other cat and produces allergen like all other cats*. They are not hypoallergenic by any means, as claimed by some. Then why do some people seem to have no allergic reaction to rex cats? There is no simple answer to this question at this time, and more research is required to get the answers needed. One possible hypothesis is that as rex cats have less hair to shed, they simply deposit less allergen-laced hair around the home. But, whatever the reasons some allergic people seem to tolerate them. From personal studies and observations by Margaret Lawrence in the UK, she found that around 10% of people allergic to cats tolerate rex cats. Please, before you race out and look for a rex cat, remember you should always test your allergies by visiting home or catteries that only own rex cats, and test continuously over several weeks or months. As you don't want the poor little kitten to be re-homed if you find out you are allergic to him or her. Don't let your new cat become another statistic at a shelter.

How can I reduce allergen levels in my home and cat?

  • Washing your cat 2 times a week has shown to help reduce the allergen levels. Ensuring that you wash and rinse it well. Studies have shown that the accumulation of of Fel d1 on the skin is restored within two days.
  • Fel d 1 levels on the skin of the cat are dramatically higher on the facial area than chest. Make sure you wash that face well.
  • The use of allergy wipes such as Allerpet, has proved effective in reduces cat allergens on the cat and thus your home (studies showed that it was effective for around 80% of its users).
  • Ensure your cat is spayed or neutered.
  • Wash your hands after handling your cat and refrain from touching your face or eyes.
  • Wash clothes frequently and wear more cotton and less wool.
  • Keep the house as clean as possible by washing floors and bed linen often with hot water to eliminate the allergens.
  • Wash clothes and bed linen using detergent solutions at 25°C (77°F) for at least 5 minutes - to extract cat allergen from bedding and clothing.
  • Use dusting sprays whist dusting to minimize dust spread.
  • Carpet is more likely to hold allergens - so if you can remove it in favour of wood, vinyl or tile floors.
  • Avoid heavy drapes that trap the allergens and dust.
  • Keep the cat out of your bedroom and laundry (keep it off your clean clothes) and provide it with its own bed.
  • Minimize other allergens in the house such as smoke, dust, moulds, scented candles, chemicals and pollens etc. Multiple allergens are linked to the development of more severe allergic reactions and asthma.
  • Create outdoor enclosures for your cat so it can spend some time out side and not confined to an enclosed house and you get some fresh air in your home.
  • Keep the cat litter in a well-ventilated area and dip rather than pour when you empty it and use litter that is as dust free as possible.
  • Use high-efficiency air cleaners, either central or portable.
  • Check with your allergist for any anti-inflammatory therapy or possibly desensitisation ("immunotherapy") options.
  • Hope they finish working on a vaccine.

Update:

Allerca have successfully produced the worlds first hypoallergenic cats. Visit their site for more information.

Related articles:

Hypoallergenic Breeds of Cat   Allergies to cats   What is cat dander?

References:

Allergy July 2001;56:646-652.
"Allergic Reactions in Rex Cats" by Margaret Lawrence MA.
"Allergies and Your Cat. Does Water make a Difference" By Carolyn Ross Tomlin
"Allerpet: Press Release", American Academy of Allergy and Immunology meeting in New York in February of 1995
"Cats Trigger Asthma Only Sometimes". Brian Vastag JAMA
"Could That Dark-Colored Feline Be Causing Your Sneezing?" By Susan A. Steeves Reviewed by Dr. Pamela R. Yoder Jan. 19, 2001 for WebMD Corporation
The Devon Rex Breed Club
"Fel d 1 levels in domestic living rooms are not related to cat color or hair length.", Siebers R, Healy B, Holt S, Peters S, Crane J,
Fitzharris P, J Allergy Clin Immunol 2001 Oct;108(4):652-3
"Fel d 1 production in the cat skin varies according to anatomical sites.", Carayol N, Birnbaum J, Magnan A, Ramadour M,
Lanteaume A, Vervloet D, Tessier Y, Pageat P. Allergy 2000 Jun;55(6):570-3
"Home Characteristics Increase Indoor Allergen Levels" American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Network Release
Journal of Clinical Immunology March 2001;2:107(3)
The Lancet 1999; 353:1942.
"Laundry Washing Agents Prove Effective In Removing Cat Dander, Dust Mites " September Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology
"Pet Allergy Information" ASCIA - The Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy
"The Protective Effect of Cats, Pet Cats May Keep Some Kids From Developing Asthma", By Liza Jane Maltin Web MD Medical News, Reviewed by Dr. Tonja Wynn Hampton
"School as a risk environment for children allergic to cats and a site for transfer of cat allergen to homes." J Allergy Clinical Immunology 1999; 103: 1012-1017.
"Sensitisation, asthma, and a modified Th2 response in children exposed to cat allergen: a populations-based cross-sectional study". T. Platts-Mills, et al. (2001)
The Lancet 357, 752-56.
"Vacuuming Increases Cat Allergen Exposure ", American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Network Release
"Washing the dog reduces dog allergen levels, but the dog needs to be washed twice a week." J Allergy Clinical Immunology 1999; 103: 581-85.
"What you wear impacts allergies" by Michael E. Ruff, M.D. AAAAI, The American Academy of Allergies Asthma and Immunology.