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Coping with Cat Allergies

If you are among the 15 percent of Americans who suffer from pet-related allergies, here are strategies for reducing the potential for a reaction.

Causes

Some people develop an immune reaction to a certain protein produced in the sebaceous glands of a cat's skin. This allergen is found in a cat's dander -- the minute scales of dead skin that cats are constantly shedding. Allergens are also present in a cat's saliva and urine and are deposited on her fur when she licks herself. When the fur dries, the microscopic particles flake off and become airborne, making it easy for them to get into your nose (and lungs).

Cat allergens are very sticky, adhering to clothing, furnishings, and walls. The allergens can also stay in the air for hours and remain potent for weeks.

If you are experiencing allergic symptoms such as wheezing, sneezing, or rashes, consult an allergist. There are many types of allergies, and yours may not be pet-related. If you turn out to be allergic to cats, your allergist can design an appropriate regimen of medications, alternative therapies, or allergy shots to alleviate much of your suffering.

In addition, the coping tips on the next page can help you minimize your symptoms.

Coping Tips

Though there is no cure for allergies, you can make life a lot more pleasant by adhering to these simple guidelines:

  • Wash your hands immediately after you pet your cat. Try to keep your hands away from your face, particularly your eyes, until you can wash up. Depending on the severity of your allergy and the frequency of your contact with your cat, you may want to shower and change your clothing several times during the day.
  • Let a non-allergic family member handle the litter box chores, as cat urine contains allergens. Also avoid deodorized litter and litter that throws dust; these may be as irritating as the cat allergens.
  • Have your cat brushed regularly; daily would be ideal. A non-allergic family member can be responsible for daily grooming (outdoors) or you can take your cat to a professional groomer.
  • Bathe your cat frequently. Take your cat to a groomer or have a non-allergic family member take care of bathing. Wash your cat's bedding and toys weekly, too.
  • Feed your cat a well-balanced diet that includes some natural fat. Fat will make her skin less dry so there will be less shedding.
  • Keep your cat out of your bedroom and off your bed at all times. Cover your mattresses, box springs, and pillows with zippered-plastic, allergy-proof cases. Purchase pillows and mattresses with non-allergic polyester filling.
  • Avoid heavy carpets, curtains, or upholstered furniture that attract the sticky little allergens. If you do have carpeting, have it steam-cleaned several times a year. Wash walls, floors, and baseboards regularly. (How often depends on the severity of your allergies and on your cat.)
  • Use a room air purifier containing a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter. This will remove some of the dander in the air.
  • Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filtration system. This helps pick up more of the dander from your floors, and trap it.
  • Replace central heating/cooling system air filters and humidifier filters frequently. Make sure vent and furnace filters are efficient.
  • Open windows and doors as much as possible and use exhaust fans to keep your home well-ventilated.
  • Keep dust to a minimum. Wipe surfaces often with a damp cloth and vacuum instead of sweeping (it stirs up less dust). Store books in glass-enclosed shelving. Wear a dust mask while cleaning.
  • Don't smoke. Smoking lowers your tolerance to allergens and aggravates your already-sensitive lungs.

Better Breeds for Allergy Sufferers

All cats produce dander, even if they don't have hair, so there are no truly "hypoallergenic" breeds. Some breeds have gained a reputation as hypoallergenic, probably because they tend to be bathed and groomed more frequently than other breeds, leaving less dander to be cast into the air.

Still, cats that shed profusely may cause more problems for allergic owners, simply because their loose hair -- contaminated with dander and dried saliva -- is more plentiful, and ends up on furniture, in rugs, and just about everywhere. For this reason, there may be some benefit to these breeds that shed little or no hair:

  • Devon Rex
  • Cornish Rex
  • Sphynx

It's also worth noting that male cats generally produce more allergens than female cats do.

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