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.
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
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.
How Do I Know if I Have a Cat Allergy?
Although the symptoms of a cat allergy may seem fairly obvious, it's not always the cat that causes them. It's a good idea to get confirmation from your doctor. After all, you wouldn't want to blame Mr. Whiskers unjustly.
Your doctor can do a skin or blood test to see if you're allergic. However, allergy tests aren't always correct; the doctor may also want you to try living without a cat for a few months to see how it affects your allergy symptoms.
How Are Cat Allergies Treated?
Cat allergies can usually be controlled with standard allergy drugs. Your doctor might recommend:
- Antihistamines, which are available over-the-counter -- like cetirizine (Zyrtec), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), fexofenadine ( Allegra), and loratadine (Claritin); or some antihistamines such as azelastine (Astelin) come in a nasal spray
- Decongestants, like over-the-counter pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) or allergy drugs that contain the ingredient pseudoephedrine such as Allegra-D, Claritin-D, or Zyrtec-D
Nasal steroid sprays, which affect allergy or asthma symptoms in various ways; steroid sprays are a common treatment for allergies. Budesonide (Rhinocort), fluticasone (Flonase), and triamcinolone (Nasacort Allergy 24HR) are steroid sprays that are available over the counter.
Allergy shots are another option. Allergy shots are not always effective, and completing treatment can take years. They're also not used for children under age 5. But they can be a huge help to some people. Ask your doctor if they make sense for you.
Unfortunately, there's no way to prevent an allergy. Some studies have shown that exposure to pets as a young child seems to reduce the risk of developing pet allergies later. On the other hand, a child who already has allergic tendencies may get worse with exposure to a pet.
Reducing Exposure to Cats
While medical treatment can help control cat allergies, the best approach is simple: avoid cats and their dander. Here are some tips.
- Don't touch, hug, or kiss cats. It should be obvious, but some people think a little cat contact is OK. It isn't.
- Beware of visitors who own cats. Even if your house guests leave their cats at home, they can bring the dander with them on their clothing and luggage. This indirect exposure can cause serious cat allergy symptoms in some people.
- Plan. If you have to stay in a house with cats, ask that the cat be kept out of the room in which you will sleep for a few weeks before you arrive. Also, start taking allergy medication a few weeks beforehand. Once an allergic reaction gets started, it can be tough to control. But taking medicine can prevent it from happening in the first place.
But what if you already own a cat? Here's the most sensible advice: if you or a family member has cat allergies, you shouldn't have a cat in the home.
Of course, such harsh advice may not be easy to follow. What if your kids have already fallen in love with a kitten? What if you intended to never, ever part with your cat? If the cat has to stay, there are other things you can try.
- Keep your distance. Limit exposure to the cat. Certainly, another family member should take responsibility for the cat's care and do things like cleaning the litter box.
- Restrict the cat to certain sections of the house. Don't allow your cat to roam free. Keep the cat out of your bedroom at all times.
- Keep the cat outdoors as much as possible. That's how some people get around their cat allergies. However, make sure your cat is safe outside.
- Clean rigorously and often. Cat dander gets everywhere. So you need to sweep and mop the floors, vacuum the rugs, and clean furniture regularly. Make sure to get a vacuum with a HEPA filter, because regular filters may not be fine enough to catch allergens. Get rid of carpets and drapes that can trap dander.
- Clear the air. A central air cleaner -- as well as filters on the vents themselves -- can help prevent cat dander from circulating through the house.
- Consider bathing your cat on a regular basis. Experts aren't certain if bathing really helps reduce the amount of allergen. But if it doesn't traumatize the cat too badly, you could try it and see if it reduces symptoms.
While these techniques might help, they may not be enough. As hard as it might be, if keeping your cat is putting your health -- or a family member's health -- at risk, you have to consider giving it up.
Whatever you do, don't assume that you can just wait it out, that cat allergies will naturally get better over time. They might very well get worse. Out-of-control allergies can do more than make life miserable -- they can increase the risk of asthma, which is a serious disease.
So don't ignore the signs of cat allergies. Instead, see a doctor. Together, you can figure out the best way to tackle the problem.