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Cat Allergies

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Life with cat allergies -- whether they're yours or a family member's -- can raise a lot of questions. Could a cat allergy explain your son's never-ending cold symptoms? Will you regret giving in to your daughter's demands for a kitten, despite your allergies? Will a so-called hypoallergenic cat allow you to have the pet you've always wanted without making you a sneezing, sniffling mess?

Read on to learn what you need to know about cat allergies, from causes to treatments to avoidance.

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What Causes Cat Allergies?

About 10% of the U.S. population has pet allergies and cats are among the most common culprits. Cat allergies are twice as common as dog allergies. But contrary to what you might think, it's not the fur or hair that's the real problem. People with cat allergies are really allergic to proteins in the cat's saliva, urine, and dander (dried flakes of skin).

How do these tiny proteins cause such a big allergic reaction in the body? People with allergies have oversensitive immune systems. Their bodies mistake harmless things -- like cat dander -- for dangerous invaders, and attack them as they would bacteria or viruses. The symptoms of the allergy are the side effects of your body's assault on the allergen, or trigger.

Keep in mind that even if you don't have an actual cat allergy, your cat can still indirectly cause your allergies to flare up. Outside cats can bring in pollen, mold, and other allergens on their fur.

And what about so-called "hypoallergenic" cats? While some breeds -- like the "hairless" sphinx -- are said to be less likely to trigger symptoms of cat allergies than others, any cat has the potential to cause problems. This is true regardless of its breed, hair length, or how much it sheds. So if you know that you or another family member is allergic to cats, getting one -- no matter what the breed -- is not a good idea.

What Are the Symptoms of Cat Allergies?

Symptoms of cat allergies can include:

  • coughing and wheezing
  • hives or a rash on the chest and face
  • red, itchy eyes
  • redness of the skin where a cat has scratched, bitten, or licked you
  • runny, itchy, stuffy nose
  • sneezing

Symptoms of a cat allergy might develop in just a few minutes or take hours to appear. About 20% to 30% of people with allergic asthma have severe flare-ups after coming in contact with a cat.

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