Cats and allergies: A primer

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Up to 15 percent of the world’s population is allergic to cats, so you’ll find lots of ink being spilled about hypoallergenic felines, and whether they truly exist. So do they?

The short answer: No. But as always, it’s complicated.

Allergy Causes

Researchers have nailed down five different allergens that cats produce. The main culprits are proteins secreted by sebaceous glands in their skin, and another present in cat saliva. As a cat grooms itself, it spreads these substances around, and pretty soon it’s wherever the kitty’s been—and you’re reaching for the tissues.

Since it’s in their skin and saliva, getting a hairless cat won’t solve the problem. These chemicals can stick around for months even if your kitty ends up living elsewhere.

And of course, the biggest factor in whether or not you’ll be all puffy after giving Scruffy a big kiss is your own specific tolerance to these chemicals, which is difficult to quantify.

But…I’ve heard of Hypoallergenic Cats!

In 2006, a company called Allerca claimed to have developed hypoallergenic cats and dogs through selective breeding. However, the company’s assertions were mired in controversy, and they’ve since halted sales of these pets. (Considering they charged between $7,000 and $23,000 for each kitty, it’s not exactly cause for tears.)

You’ll find articles touting the hypoallergenic properties of rex cats, as well as the Sphynx and Siberian varieties, but studies have failed to reach a consensus. It’s possible that those varieties produce fewer allergens, but they still produce them, and if you happen to be quite sensitive, you might not be able to tell the difference anyway.

So there aren’t any silver bullets. But cat lovers with asthma or allergen sensitivity aren’t left out in the cold. (One estimate says a third of you own cats anyway.) You just need to know what you’re up against.

Cat Allergy Considerations

Here are some facts to keep in mind when you’re considering adopting a furball of sniffles:

Don’t jump into it. We love cute cats as much as you do, but if it turns out you can’t handle it and you’re blind-sided by the problem, you might end up giving him up. That’s sad and stressful for everyone involved. If you’re allergic but dead-set on getting one anyway, never fear: There are plenty of things you can do to minimize cat allergens in your home.

Allergies can develop over time. Symptoms can still pop up after a few days—or even weeks. Unfortunately, kittens are especially notorious for this, as their sebaceous glands will develop more fully as they age, bringing more allergens along with them.

Make sure it’s actually the cat. Get an allergy test to be sure it’s the feline that’s responsible for your symptoms. It might be something else.

Males cause more sniffles than females. Typically, neutering males will lower their allergen production, but whether or not that level would be below your sneezy threshold is impossible to say.

Coat color might not matter. Some studies have shown dark-colored kitties to produce more allergens than light colored cats, but other studies have shown there’s no difference.

Look into allergy shots. They can take a long time to kick in (potentially a couple years), and their effectiveness varies, but your doc can help you decide whether they’ll help you build up your kitty resistance.