Even as more people than ever before have come to appreciate cats, one group of cat lovers keeps its distance — and wishes they didn’t have to. That’s because one of the biggest barriers to keeping a cat is allergies. More people are allergic to cats than to dogs, and cat allergies are oftentimes more severe as well. For people — and especially children — with asthma, cat allergies can be life-threatening.
The first thing you need to know about allergies is that the fur isn’t what causes the problem; it’s an element called Fel D1 found in cat saliva and deposited on skin and fur when a cat grooms. This allergen becomes part of the dander — flakes of skin and secretions and saliva that a cat spreads wherever he wanders and that become airborne as he’s petted or when he jumps or shakes.
The second thing you need to know relates to the first: Because the allergen-laden skin flakes are what cause the problems, a hypoallergenic cat is not possible. Cats with little or no fur can’t help you, allergists say — even though some breeders of cats such as the hairless Sphinx or the lightly furred Cornish and Devon Rexes insist otherwise.
Still, some people live with both cats and allergies, and if you’re considering doing so — or struggling with the situation already — find an allergist who doesn’t greet you with, “First, find new homes for your pets.” In some cases, for some people, that unfortunately becomes the ultimate — and only — resolution of the problem. But giving up your cat needn’t be the starting point for attacking animal allergies. It’s your life, after all.
Here are some other tips for living with cat allergies:
- Don’t neglect your other allergies. Working with an allergist to get them under control may give you enough “breathing room” to make life with a cat bearable. Remember always that allergies and asthma are serious health problems, not to be taken lightly.
- Establish your bedroom as an “allergy-free zone.” More than one-third of our lives is spent sleeping, and so making that time less stressful for the body is very important. Close off your bedroom and reduce dust-collecting surfaces by removing carpets and rugs, wall hangings, stuffed animals, and collectibles from the room. Invest in an air cleaner and keep air ducts and ceiling fans clean. Banish feather pillows and down comforters. Use zippered, dustproof covers on the mattress and pillows. Combat dust mites by washing bedding frequently in hot water.
- Make the bedroom completely off-limits to pets at all times. Although there’s not a pet lover alive who doesn’t enjoy a purring cat on the bed, keeping the bedroom “allergy-free” is probably a necessary compromise for allergy sufferers.
- Try to limit exposure to other allergens. Avoid cleaning solutions, aerosol products, cigarette smoke, and strong perfumes and consider using a mask while doing yard work and housework, especially at the height of the pollen season. Better yet: Get someone else to mow the lawn, do the vacuuming, and clean the litter box. Again, keeping all allergies under control can help your body handle your cat more easily.
- Keep your pets clean and well groomed. The best situation is for a member of the family who doesn’t suffer from allergies to take over these pet-care chores. Weekly bathing of your cat in clear water is a must — it keeps down the dander levels. Add soap if your cat needs a real bath, but it’s not necessary for allergen control — clear water is fine. Some commercial preparations claim to keep the dander levels down, and more than a few people swear by them, which makes them worth experimenting with to see whether they can help you.
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Gina Spadafori and Paul D. Pion, DVM, DACVIM