Cat allergies affect approximately 10 million Americans and are twice as common as dog allergies. There are more cats in this country, 90 million in 60 million households, than any other pet. Scientists will insist that the hypoallergenic cat is fiction, but many people who have never been able to have a cat due to allergies will attest to the fact that they can tolerate a Birman or a Siberian just fine, my husband being one of them.

The primary cause of allergic reactions to cats is caused by allergens found in the sebaceous glands in the cat's skin and can also be found in their saliva. When cats lick and groom themselves, they spread a particularly potent protein called Fel d 1 all over their fur. Then the saliva ladened with Fel d 1 dries and because it is several times lighter than air, floats throughout the cat's environment. Allergic allergens are also found in the feces, serum, urine, dander and hair roots of the cat. Cat dander, which is comprised of the liquid secretions and shed skin cells, is very sticky and can latch on to multiple surfaces, including clothing, walls and furniture. An allergy occurs when the body over-reacts to a substance (allergen) and produces excessive amounts of histamine. Excessive histamine production leads to the irritating symptoms associated with cat allergies like itchy eyes, sneezing and skin rash.

The prefix "hypo" means "less than" and thus the word hypoallergenic tells the kitten/cat buyer that the breeder believes the cat to produce fewer allergens than other cats. Hypoallergenic does not mean allergen free. No cat is allergen free, not even hairless cats. The fact remains that even if a cat is believed to be hypoallergenic, they still produce the Fel d 1 protein which can cause allergic reactions.

Reactions to specific pets depend on several factors, like the severity of a person's allergies, the level of allergens a pet produces and how much the person is exposed to the pet. Male cats produce more allergens than female cats, whole cats produce more allergens than altered cats and adult cats produce more allergens than kittens. Early sterilization is highly recommended to prevent the rapid increase of the allergens as the cat approaches maturity.

The Siberian and Birman are said to produce lower levels of Fel d 1 and, therefore, provide less allergic reactions than do most other cats. That is why they are said to have hypoallergenic qualities (having a decreased tendency to provoke an allergic reaction). The only way to tell for sure if your allergies will tolerate these wonderful breeds is to spend some time in a home with adult cats.

When going to a breeder's home to do an allergy test, you should keep the same clothes on for up to 12 hours after exposure to see if any symptoms appear later. For some people, allergic symptoms may not occur until there have been several days or weeks of continuous exposure to the cat.

People are quick to blame an allergy on their cat even if they haven't suffered previously. Doctors too find the cat a convenient scapegoat. Many people re-home or euthanize cats, only to find that they are allergic to dust mites, furniture polish or dust from a new carpet. If you are having allergy symptoms and think it may be due to your cat, have a skin test done to make sure it isn't something else you are reacting to. Some allergy sufferers are successfully treated for cat-allergy by desensitizing injections.

How can I reduce allergies in my home?

  • Ensure your cat is spayed or neutered as early as possible.
  • Wash your hands after handling your cat and refrain from touching your face or eyes.
  • The use of allergy wipes, such as Allerpet, has proved effective in reducing cat allergens on the cat and thus in your home. Studies have shown that it was effective for around 80% of its users.
  • Keep the house as clean as possible by washing floors and bedding often with hot water to eliminate the allergens.
  • Use high-efficiency air cleaners, either central or portable. An air filtration system will reduce the amount of allergens circulated.
  • Vacuum carpets with a HEPA equipped vacuum cleaner. This will reduce the allergens. Cat dander settles onto carpets and soft furnishings, which act as a reservoir for the allergen, releasing it back into the air when touched. Remove carpeting if possible.
  • Ventilate your house. Opening windows and using exhaust fans can help increase air exchange and decrease airborne allergens.
  • Use dust sprays while dusting to minimize dust spread.
  • Wool attracts allergens. Try to avoid wearing it.
  • Avoid heavy drapes that trap the allergens and dust.
  • Keep the cat litter in a well-ventilated area and dip, rather than pour it out when you empty the box. Also use litter that is as dust free as possible.
  • Consult your veterinarian about products that you can bathe your cat in to help reduce the allergens.
  • Reduce your other allergies. Few people are allergic only to cats.