Are You Allergic to Your Cat?

It’s a painful reality for many animal lovers. Here’s some help in managing this surprisingly common problem.

If you are allergic to your cat, don’t despair. You are actually far from alone — but luckily, there are increasingly effective methods for dealing with allergies. Believe it or not, at least one in three cat owners has allergies to feline friends. For some, the allergic reaction is limited to itchy, watery eyes. Others may develop asthma or other serious breathing problems.

The major culprit behind human allergic reactions to cats originates from cat skin, according to David Rosenstreich, MD, Chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx, NY. “The thing that is allergenic in cats is a protein or substance that comes from their sebaceous and anal glands,” explains Dr. Rosenstreich. “When they lick themselves, they coat their body with this material which then dries up and comes off them in a cloud of small particles.”

Two proteins in this “cat dust” — Fel d 1 and cat albumin — are responsible for causing the allergic reaction. Dr. Rosenstreich states that “the substances in these particles are very allergenic; and because they come off the cat so easily and can be carried by air currents, cats tend to leave the stuff all over the place. So the homes of cat owners become coated with these allergens and people become highly allergic to cats.”
When inhaled, these tiny particles — which are only about five microns in diameter — are so small that they can lodge deep inside your lungs in the bronchial tubes. Pollen grains, in contrast, tend to be about five times as large.

Also keep in mind that allergic reactions to cats do not always occur right away. Even if you have owned your cat for years without exhibiting any symptoms, you can become allergic at any time. These latent allergic reactions can be triggered by a variety of causes. Sometimes they occur when cat owners bring additional cats into their homes — which essentially “overloads” their systems with cat allergens. In other cases, replacing a lethargic old cat with a kitten can trigger a reaction because the young cat is much more active and will spread more allergens than an older cat.

Three Ways to Manage. If you develop an allergic reaction, there are three ways to cope: environmental control, drug therapy and allergy shots.

Environmental control is the first step you should take. It literally means cleaning your house and restricting the areas where your cat can go. “It is critically important the cat never go into the bedroom. There should be one room in the house where the patient can go where there is no allergen. Lots of people have cats in their bed; that’s a real no-no,” says Dr. Rosenstreich.

Once your cat is out of the bedroom, wash and clean anything in the room where cat dander may have settled, such as drapes, sheets and pillowcases. If there is a rug, Dr. Rosenstreich advises you to get rid of it because it is probably permeated with allergens. If you can’t discard the rug, get it steam-cleaned. Put special allergen-impermeable plastic covers on your pillows, mattresses and box springs because furnishings usually are permeated with allergens.

Dr. Rosenstreich also recommends that you buy special allergen-proof vacuum cleaner bags. Vacuum cleaners with normal bags can make things worse by blowing the tiny allergens back into the air. You can buy the vacuum bags and allergen-impermeable covers at medical supply firms that offer products for people with allergies. Your physician can give you the names of these companies.

Don’t expect overnight results; it can take about six months to really get a room free of cat allergens. “It takes a lot of diligent cleaning and waiting,” remarks Dr. Rosenstreich.

Drug Therapy as Option. Although many people respond well to treatment with over-the-counter antihistamines, there are newer medications available by prescription only that are quite effective. There also are prescription nasal sprays, eye drops and inhalers. Consult an allergy specialist who can evaluate you and determine which medications will likely be the most effective for you.

There are also quite effective allergy shots for cat allergies, according to Dr. Rosenstreich. However, these allergy treatments are not a one-shot deal; it can take two years or more of treatment. Typically, a patient receives weekly injections from an allergist for 16 to 20 weeks. By that time, a patient’s body is usually immunized to the allergen.

Then monthly booster shots should keep the patient immunized. If this treatment is handled correctly, most patients become allergy-free — unless they disregard their doctor’s advice and stay in frequent physical contact with their cats. “If they are going to keep sleeping with their cats, allergy shots probably won’t help much,” says Dr. Rosenstreich. “The shots work very well for people who don’t’ have constant contact.”

Many allergists normally prescribe monthly maintenance injections for two years. If the patient remains symptom-free after the maintenance period, allergists usually stop the injections. A third of Dr. Rosenstreich’s patients never need shots again, a third will not need shots again for several years and a third continue to experience allergy symptoms and must go through another two-year course of injections.

Whatever course of action you take, you should visit a qualified allergist. “Any good allergist should go into detail about how you live and what you should do,” explains Dr. Rosenstreich. “Your lifestyle is a key element in an allergy evaluation. Most people who follow sound medical advice can live with their cats, although obviously in a more restricted way.”

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