Eleven million people are allergic to cats alone. About 15% of us are
allergic to animals.
People who love pets and don't have allergies should not become complacent. "You can
develop an allergy at any time," Derek K. Johnson, MD, director of allergy
and immunology at Temple University Children's Medical Center, tells WebMD.
"That's why it's important to know what causes pet allergies. It's the
flakes from the animal's skin, called dander, not the fur. So even if it's a
bald cat, you can be allergic."
The animal's saliva on the fur from cleaning itself or on your skin from
slobbery kisses can also incite a reaction. Pet urine can also be a
"To be exact," Pamela A. Georgeson, MD, a board-certified allergist
at the Kenwood Allergy and Asthma Center in Chesterfield Township, Mich., tells
WebMD, "a lot of people are allergic to a cat protein called FEL-d1 found
in dander and saliva."
Allergies are more commonly caused by cats, says Dean C. Mitchell, MD, a
board-certified allergist in practice in New York.
"I have had people come to me from all walks of life," he continues.
"Some people can't even go to Thanksgiving at a house with a pet. I see
veterinarians with allergies, pet groomers."
Symptoms of Pet Allergy
People, especially kids, may not even know they are allergic. The proteins
cause the body to produce histamines, which result in sudden eye itches, wheezy
breathing, or a rash.
Children can be declared to be prone to colds and not allergic. Children can
also be diagnosed as asthmatic, and pets can exacerbate asthma.
Allergies can be hereditary. If you had asthmatic bronchitis a lot as a child, you may develop a cat
allergy later in life. "No one is born with an allergy," Johnson points
out, "they develop in some people from exposure."
Interestingly, according to Johnson, there is "very compelling
information" that children exposed to animals before their immune systems
are fully formed at age 2 are unlikely to become allergic.
Of course, such symptoms can result from other causes. Ask your doctor about
a test for pet allergies.
Coping With Pets in the Home
"We have a three-pronged approach," says Georgeson. "First is
avoidance. "You need to limit the areas of the home where the animal is
allowed, primarily the bedroom and the bed. Don't forget how much time we spend
breathing and touching things in that room."
"Shut the bedroom door," Johnson says.
Buy a HEPA filter. All three physicians recommended this. HEPA filters can
be portable or home-wide.
Remove dander-trapping carpets. "Install tile or wood that can be
cleaned thoroughly," Georgeson advises. (Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter,
Wash bedding frequently in hot water (dust mites, which do not come from
animals, are also powerful allergens). Washing flushes away dander that has
settled on the bedding.
In some cases, consider closing off house-wide ducts to the bedroom and
using portable heating and cooling.
Do not allow the pet in the car or use washable seat covers.