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Can cat allergy be predicted before adopting, and, if so, how?

Girl with allergies and British Shorthair cat on her laps

Around 1 in 5 people suffers with animal allergies. How to prevent it?

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Either there are thousands of cat mums and dads that are suffering allergic reactions to their pets in silence, or they have found a way to combat the scourge of cat allergens. But is our propensity to an allergic reaction something that can be predicted, or is it just something we must get used to?

By Nick Whittle

Updated on the 08/02/2021, 13:23

Here we look at whether it is possible to determine the likelihood of our suffering by exposure to cats. We also look at what steps we can take to lessen the allergic reaction suffered by our exposure.

So many people are keen to adopt a cat, but are worried about suffering constant sniffles or even allergy-spiked asthma. We unveil the necessary steps to take in order to own a cat and be free of allergies.

Do cat allergies start right away?

Yes and no. Some people are highly sensitive to the proteins of the cat’s dander and saliva and will feel the effects of their contact with a cat within seconds. Of other people the effects are less pronounced but may gradually increase as time passes. For the latter cohort, such a slow-growing allergic reaction can be dangerous, since the cause may not be obvious.

There is currently little clinical evidence to predict whether one person is more allergic to cats than another. Although cats appear to be a very common cause of allergies, any animal with fur may cause anyone to suffer an allergic reaction. Their sheer number and our propensity to own a cat may be responsible for this unhappy fact.

How to live with a cat if you have allergies 

If you know you are allergic to cats, does that mean that you can’t own one? Not necessarily, but there are steps to take in order to lessen your chance of suffering an allergic reaction.

1. Keep your house ventilated

Open windows to keep fresh air coming through the living space. If it is too cold to have the windows open then invest in an air filtration machine that will do the same task.

2. Make one room a safe room 

If there is someone in the family that has a particularly bad reaction to cats make sure you give them a safe place to go to when they feel an allergic reaction coming on; somewhere a cat is NOT allowed!

3. Groom the cat regularly

Take the time to clean and brush your cat in order to remove loose fur. Ideally, do such a thing outdoors to minimise the amount of dander in the house.

4. Keep the litter tray clean

This should be a given for any responsible cat owner. For someone who lives with a person who is allergic to a cat it is essential that the litter tray is cleaned regularly throughout the day.

How do you build an immunity to cat allergies? 

In short, immunity to a cat allergy cannot be ‘built up’. Without specific treatments from a GP we cannot get used to allergens. To try to develop cat allergen immunity would be like trying to stop our eyes watering when we cut onions. It is just something that happens.

Some GPs offer immunotherapy shots to sufferers of extreme allergens. These sufferers are usually people who develop something called anaphylaxis: a life-threatening and debilitating allergic reaction. Immunotherapy is not usually offered to someone who experiences sniffles after petting a cat.

How can you tell if someone is allergic to cats?

When someone experiences an allergic reaction their nose will run and their eyes will be itchy and watery. Someone who is extremely allergic to cat proteins may become listless very quickly, and complain of difficulty of breath.

Symptoms of advanced anaphylaxis include:

  • Extremely low blood pressure
  • Wheezing
  • Tachycardia
  • Clamminess
  • Confusion and panic
  • Loss of consciousness

Can you be allergic to a certain cat?

Some research into cat allergens has shown that some cats are more liable to cause human allergies than others. As well as variations of breed, queen cats are said to produce fewer allergens than toms, and gibs (neutered males) fewer allergens than tom cats.

No cats are ‘hypoallergenic’, but some cats are less likely to cause allergic reactions than others. The following breeds are thought to be easier than most on allergy sufferers:

Are you suffering from cat allergies? Here is a list of hypoallergenic cat breeds

Cat allergy: the importance of the genetic factor

When it comes to predetermining our sensitivity to cats we can look at genetic studies to help. Studies show that some people carry with them a genetic code that makes them susceptible to cat allergens. This code urges the body to overcompensate cross reactivity and bring about a bad allergic reaction.

Since it is a genetic code that is thought to be responsible, it is likely such overreaction runs in families. In other words, a child with parents who suffer allergic reactions is very likely to also suffer, and moreover to suffer a worse reaction to cat protein.

Skin-prick tests may be useful

One way to determine at least whether someone will suffer an allergic reaction is to undergo a skin-prick test. Such a simple test is a useful way to find out how sensitive a person’s body is to the presence of an allergen.

A small injection of allergen is observed over the course of a few minutes. If the area of skin around the injection site becomes inflamed, this suggests the likelihood of allergen sensitivity.

The specificity of asthma

For asthma sufferers (around 5.4 million in the UK), cat ownership is not advised. The presence of asthma dictates a hypersensitivity to allergens and is a good pointer to a person’s propensity to an extreme allergic reaction. Even minor allergic reactions are known to bring on dangerously sudden asthmatic episodes.

Spend time with a cat

You may wish to find out in some other way whether or not you are allergic to cats. A simple solution is to ‘borrow’ someone’s cat for a day and a night, and observe your health throughout the time spent in the presence of the animal. An overnight test is especially important since most home cats will be indoors for the entire time.

Cat fur is not the direct cause of an allergic reaction. Protein in the fur and in the cat’s saliva is what brings about our allergies. You may be able to clean your cat regularly and thereby lessen the effects of the protein, but you cannot rid the cat of the protein.

Thus, in order to enjoy your ownership of a cat there are careful steps to undertake. You should make your house as airy as possible and choose one room (preferably the bedroom) to be completely cat free. Additionally, it is worth asking your GP whether there are any medications on the market that cater specifically for allergen sensitivity.

Frequently asked questions

Can someone die from an allergic reaction?

My skin is itchy after stroking a cat. Am I allergic to cats?

Are cats or dogs more liable to cause allergies?