Allergies are on the rise in countries like the UK. It has been estimated that about a third of the population, and 50% of children, have an allergic condition. The propensity towards allergies is genetically inherited, but that cannot account for the very sudden rise, so it is also understood that genes can interact with the environment. Possible explanations (https://www.allergyuk.org/why-is-allergy-increasing/why-is-allergy-increasing) for the rise in allergies therefore centre on environmental issues such as:
- Children are brought up with too much hygiene – those exposed to farm animals, for example, are less likely to be allergic.
- We are eating too much processed food, leading to deficiencies in important nutrients.
- We are overexposed to potential allergens because of manufacturing processes.
- An increase in pollution may account for allergies, and certainly does exacerbate it.
An allergic reaction to cats is often understood to be a result of cat hair, so we think that longhaired cats are more allergenic. However, it is actually cat dander (flakes of skin animals shed) that causes the allergic reaction, and it comes from cat saliva (cat’s lick themselves, quite a lot ordinarily, and that’s how it gets into the dander). A group of scientists, funded by the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust recently discovered that the cat dander protein Fel d 1 is not in itself the cause of immune system activation. Rather, for an allergic reaction to occur, Fel d 1 must bind itself to a bacterial surface molecule LPS. LPS is recognised by TLR4, which is a marker of immune system activity, and the cycle of an immune response is set off. The scientists are working on a way to block this cycle (http://www.nhs.uk/news/2013/07july/pages/scientists-unlock-cause-of-cat-allergies.aspx).
Allergenic responses to cats can be very serious. As well as common symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, and itching, a cat allergy can set off an asthma attack, which can be life-threatening (http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Allergies/Pages/Symptoms.aspx).
In many ways, therefore, it makes sense for people who are allergic to cats never to have them in the home, and avoid them when in other people’s home. Many people who are allergic to cats don’t like them at all (possibly a conditioned response), which makes decision making easier. Sometimes though it’s not as easy as that. Cats are widely loved, and if you have children the situation gets even more difficult. Until a cure is developed, however, there are some other alternatives to explore if you allergic to cats and really, really want one. These can be grouped into three types of allergenic response reduction:
- Cats that have less of the protein Fel d 1. These are pure breeds and include Balinese and Siberian. It has been claimed that 75% of cat allergy sufferers have no reaction to Siberians.
- The Sphynx, which is hairless.
- Cats that have shorter or much less hair, or that shed hair less frequently, such as the Devon and Cornish Rex, the Javanese, the Russian Blue, the Bengal. They don’t have less of the Fel d 1 protein, but the way they either manage or shed their coats is different to other cats. They may not work with severe sufferers, however.
Even in the case of these cats, however, there are some caveats it’s well worth bearing in mind.
- It must be purebred, and these are expensive. A Siberian purebred cat, for example, will cost about £600. Anything less or if the owner doesn’t have papers, and you are being conned.
- You need to try before you buy. Most breeders of hypoallergenic cats will allow you to sit with a kitten to see how you react before you commit. You may also see if people in your community have one, and ask to give the cat a cuddle – if the cat will let you, otherwise take some fur home and see how you react to that.
- Some websites hilariously say you should bathe your cat 2-3 times per week (https://www.petfinder.com/cats/living-with-your-cat/cats-for-allergy-sufferers/). Some breeds are claimed to like water, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into having a bath (the same is also true of children).
- Wooden floors, frequent changes of bedding, and vacuuming your house or flat regularly is not a bad idea (in general, quite apart from the presence of cats).
- Get someone else to do the grooming.
- Some claim that feeding your cat a species appropriate diet – home cooked – will lessen the amount of allergenic saliva your cat produces. Cat food has just too much grain in it, and animals are not accustomed to processing grain (http://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2010/05/26/three-major-reasons-to-feed-your-pet-a-homemade-diet.aspx).
So what’s my personal experience of hypoallergenic cats? We got a Siberian over a year ago, despite my partner’s severe allergies/asthma and because of our daughter’s extreme love of cats. We approached a reputable breeder, did a cat sitting, and all went well. We have wooden floors, which help, but we can’t lay claim to vacuuming regularly. Nor does our cat get a bath, although she does go out in the rain a lot and has occasionally fallen into the bath (Siberian’s like running water). My partner is not 100% free of allergies, but near enough, and he doesn’t seem to mind the odd sniffle, having fallen in love with her. Siberians are only recently domesticated, which makes them a little crazy, and they are oddly needy for a cat. On the whole though, it has worked fairly well, and we now do cat sittings for other sufferers.
So the advice is, do a lot of research and testing before committing to getting a cat if you have an allergy – better that than having to rehome after you have bought one. So what’s your experience of hypoallergenic cats? Are they a myth, or reality, and which breeds have you found to be the best for allergy sufferers?