Combating cat allergies: how to tame reactions to furry friends
A company in Switzerland recently published research citing positive outcomes for a new vaccine that would protect against cat allergies. Administered to the cat rather than the patient, it would provide long-term relief for allergy sufferers. However, it’s too early to say if and when this vaccine will be available. In the meantime, understanding the basics of cat allergies can help patients alleviate their symptoms and hold on to their beloved pets.
People are not born with cat allergies. Instead, patients have a genetic predisposition and a set of risk factors that heighten their chances of becoming sensitized to a particular allergen, according to Sumona Kabir, DO, a board-certified allergist at Allergy Associates of La Crosse.
“If an individual is high-risk for a cat allergy, the more exposure he or she has to cats, the more likely an allergic response will develop,” says Dr. Kabir. “This can be unfortunate because some owners will develop an allergy after adopting a pet.”
People with cat allergies react to the proteins in the cat’s saliva, urine, and dried flakes of skin or dander—not the fur itself as many believe.
Because cat dander is finer and lighter than a dog’s, it tends to impact a greater number of people.
An estimated 10 percent of Americans are allergic to household pets; with cat allergies nearly twice as common as dog allergies. “And while you may see marketing that suggests otherwise, there are no true hypoallergenic breeds,” says Dr. Kabir. Some cats simply produce fewer allergens.
What are the symptoms?
“It can be difficult to determine if the allergy is the result of cat dander because sometimes cats are carriers of pollen, mold or other allergens—and not the direct culprit,” Dr. Kabir says.
She explains that the symptoms of a cat allergy and their severity can vary day-to-day, from sneezing and nasal itchiness to cough, rashes, and asthma flares. Allergy symptoms may also mimic colds.
So, if you’re unsure if you or your child is susceptible to pet allergies, it’s best to take an allergy skin test, the doctor notes. During this simple procedure, the cat allergen is introduced to your skin. Any reaction, such as swelling or redness, points to an allergy.
How to manage cat allergies
As a doctor of osteopathic medicine, Dr. Kabir takes a holistic approach to treating patients, factoring in how their lifestyles and environments play a role in their overall health and allergy diagnosis. She often encourages patients to take a staggered approach to care, adjusting treatment as necessary over time.
The first step: manage exposure to keep symptoms to a minimum. Even if you’re sharing a living space, there are simple ways to limit dander. Here’s how:
- Use a HEPA-certified filter. In rooms you share with your cat, clean the air with a HEPA-certified filter and be sure your vacuum is outfitted with one too.
- Consider bath-time. Kabir admits it may be asking too much to soak your cat in the tub—but wiping your furry friend down with a wet towel daily can help lower its allergens.
- Make your bedroom a cat-free zone. Dust and vacuum the bedroom—and all its upholstered areas—thoroughly and make an effort to keep your door closed.
These remedies may take time. “Cat allergens are very small protein particles that can linger in a household for up to 6 months, even after removing the pet,” explains Dr. Kabir.
For a more permanent solution, Dr. Kabir recommends immunotherapy. Over-the-counter or prescription medications can help manage symptoms, while immunotherapy will desensitize your body to the allergens.
- Allergy shots. Patients interested in overcoming their cat allergy may benefit from weekly injections that increase in potency for six months, followed by 3-5 years of monthly maintenance injections. This method is very effective, but can cause skin reactions, Dr. Kabir says.
- Look to the pharmacy. For a less intensive regimen, oral antihistamines can help keep cat allergies under control. Dr. Kabir recommends a non-sedating variety, especially for those looking to make medicine a part of their daily routine. Intranasal corticosteroid spray and antihistamine eye drops are also options you can discuss with your health care provider.
- Cat allergy vaccine. While still in development, preliminary tests show promise for a new vaccine that eliminates the allergy and limits the side effects associated with allergy shots.
Unfortunately, treatments will not be effective for everyone. If you suffer from severe and persistent symptoms you can’t get under control—or if you have asthma attacks—Dr. Kabir suggests considering living cat-free.