Your eyes burn and tear and your throat itches. Sometimes, you sneeze a dozen times in a row. You realize that youre allergic to your cat. Or maybe youre fine – but your new roommate cant stop sneezing around your feline. And yet you cant bear the thought of finding a new home for your cat and decide to find ways around the problem.
Youre not alone and its not a silly decision. According to experts, about one-third of people allergic to cats choose to live with their companions anyway. But you dont have to suffer from debilitating allergies. In most cases, you can do things around your house – and with your cat – to significantly reduce your allergies. And there are medical tactics to try, also.
Before you do anything else, make sure you or your family members are really allergic to cats. (It could actually be something else like dust, ragweed or mold.) Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that only one-half to two-thirds of children believed to be allergic to cats or dogs actually tested positive for the allergy.
What Makes Cat Allergies Tick
Some experts believe that perhaps up to six million Americans are allergic to cats, according to allergist Marianne Frieri, MD, PhD, director of allergy and immunology at Nassau University Medical Center in New York. Most people think its the cats hair that causes the sneezing or more severe reactions, says Dr. Frieri.
But the culprits are actually two proteins that are found in the saliva and dander (flakes of skin). The proteins are produced in the cats salivary glands and sebaceous glands of the skin. Cats groom themselves frequently so there is an abundance of dried saliva on their hair. Cat dander is five times smaller than household dust particles, so it floats in the air much longer than dust before it settles. In order to affect you, the allergens must enter the nasal tissue or be breathed in, says Dr. Frieri, who is board certified by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Think only long-haired cats cause problems? The length – or the amount of hair – on the cat is not the issue; its the allergens in the dander and saliva on the hair.
Therefore, you can be allergic to short-haired cats, also. However, female cats seem to be less allergenic than males, and neutered males are less allergenic than unneutered males.
The symptoms of cat allergies vary in type and intensity from one individual to the next. Symptoms may include itchy and watery eyes, runny and congested nose, sneezing, swollen sinuses, headaches, wheezing, coughing, an exacerbation of asthma and skin rashes and hives.
Make Your Cat Less Allergenic
You can try a number of things with your cats habits and grooming that may reduce your allergy symptoms. One of the most important: Keep your cat out of your bedroom completely, as hard as that may seem, says Jane Brunt, DVM, with the Cat Hospital at Towson (CHAT) in Baltimore, Maryland.
Blankets and other bedding are a great source of dander reservoirs. And dont let your cat lie or sleep on your clothing or personal belongings. Instead, provide your cat with his own special blankets, towels or purr pads on furniture or favorite nap spots. And launder these weekly to get rid of the dander, says Dr. Brunt.
Consider bathing your cat – or asking a non-allergic person do it. Some research, but not all, suggests that bathing a cat at least once a week with lukewarm water may reduce allergies. Check with your veterinarian about choosing a shampoo safe to use for cats.
Comb your cat regularly (its wise to enlist the help of a non-allergic person) to reduce the amount of allergen that winds up in the house. Be sure to groom your cat in a well-ventilated area.
Ask your veterinarian about adding a nutritional supplement to your cats diet. The skin of some cats – even of those already eating a complete and balanced diet – seems to become healthier and less itchy with supplementation; less itching means less licking and less spreading of allergen onto the fur.
Ask your veterinarian about trying Allerpet for Cats or similar commercial products which you spray on the cats fur. According to the manufacturers, the spray helps to decrease the allergens in the saliva and dander that cause allergic reactions.
After petting or playing with your cat, wash your hands before touching your face or eyes.
The Allergy-Free Home
Youll have to work at it, but you can change your home to reduce cat allergies.
Several household furnishings pose big problems when it comes to harboring cat dander. Carpets are one of them. Carpets hold 100 times more allergen than non-porous flooring. If youre serious about reducing your symptoms, get rid of your carpets and rugs and replace them with title, wood, linoleum or scatter rugs (which you can regularly wash). The same holds true with drapes and overstuffed furniture with lots of pillows.
Keep floor surfaces damp mopped, says Dr. Brunt. This is where the new disposable wipedown mops may come in handy. If you choose to live with carpets, spray them with a special product containing nontoxic tannic acid that is supposed to combat the effects of cat allergens. When you vacuum, increase your vacuum cleaners filtration abilities by using special filter replacement bags that help trap particles. Look for a vacuum cleaner that has a high allergen containment rating.
An air purifier may be your homes best friend in reducing allergens. Look for a HEPA [high-efficiency particulate air] filter room air cleaner, says Dr. Brunt, and remember to change the filters often according to the manufacturers directions.
These air filters may be able to remove almost 100 percent of small allergenic particles. Free-standing cleaners may be more effective than the small, table-top filters.
Stagnant air can also allow the allergens to accumulate, so try to keep the air in your home as fresh as possible. Circulate the air in your home – even during winter – by opening windows every day, even briefly.
Medical Alternatives for Allergies
Fortunately, you or family members have various medical options to control allergy symptoms, especially if changing your environment is too difficult. If you develop allergy symptoms, consult with a board-certified allergist. Make sure you undergo skin or blood tests to see exactly what youre allergic to, says Dr. Frieri. Many people are actually allergic to more than just cats; theyre also affected by dust, pollen and other allergens which compound the allergic reaction.
The next step is dealing with the specific symptoms – itchy eyes, nose congestion, wheezing, hives, says Dr. Frieri. If your only symptom is itchy and watery eyes, then we can give you a topical antihistamine for your eyes. If your nose is congested, we can give you an antihistamine with a decongestant or a nasal steroid for that.
For those people with more severe or widespread symptoms, allergy shots – known as immunotherapy – work very well for allergic asthma and other allergy conditions.
Some experts estimate that about 80 percent of allergy cases improve with immunotherapy. I see one woman in my practice who has a serious cat allergy but who did not want to get rid of her four cats. The allergy injections definitely helped her, says Dr. Frieri.
In order to receive the injections, she says, you must definitely test positive for the cat and/or other allergies. The injections should preferably be given by an allergy specialist, not a general practitioner, because a specialist will know what possible side effects to watch out for.
Patients usually receive small amounts of the vaccine – which is covered by most health insurance policies – every two to three weeks and then build up to monthly maintenance injections. The good news is that once youre on maintenance for three or four years, you may be able to come off the shots.
Theres a lot you can do to control your environment and medically treat your symptoms. Although you may not be able to eliminate your cat allergies totally, the good news is that you dont have to find a new home for your beloved feline in order to control your symptoms.