When someone becomes allergic to cats, what they are actually reacting to is a protein known as Fel d 1, which is in cats’ saliva. The saliva is also very sticky, and because cats clean themselves by licking their fur, their fur also becomes very sticky. Hair from the fur then sticks to fabrics and furnishings, and can be carried to other places on clothing where it might then stick to other furnishings etc.
Cat allergy symptoms
The main symptom people will experience is allergic rhinitis (aka hay-fever). Some people may experience skin symptoms. If you also have asthma, this can be made worse by your allergic reactions to cats.
Most allergies develop in childhood, so if your child starts sneezing or wheezing every time they come into contact with a cat, this may be due to a cat allergy. If you suspect a cat allergy, it is best to discuss this with your doctor. They may refer you/your child for a skin prick test. It is recommended getting a diagnosis and medications to treat your symptoms, and then consider how to reduce the exposure to cats’ fur.
People with allergic rhinitis are usually prescribed nasal cortico-steroid sprays, which can act as ‘preventers’. You may be recommended to take antihistamines before going into a house where there is a cat. If you/your child also has asthma, discuss your asthma management plan with your doctor or asthma nurse.
Immunotherapy is a long-term treatment which can reduce your sensitivity to cat allergen. It isn’t a cure but can reduce the severity of symptoms and/or the need to take medications over several years. However, it is not funded in New Zealand.
Reducing exposure to cat allergen
Generally, the highest levels of exposure to cat allergens will be in homes with cats. Walking into a room where a cat is, or spends time, can disturb hair on furnishings etc, so they float in the air and are easily inhaled.
If this is your own home, you may have to consider finding a new home for your pet. This can be very challenging for cat owners and their families .
If it is not possible to remove the cat, try keeping it out of doors all or some of the time, or limit it to a single area of the house. Keep cats out of the bedroom at all times. Use a face mask when brushing the cat or changing the kitty litter. Wash your hands after touching your pet, and change your clothing after contact. Remember not to rub your eyes until you have washed your hands!
Opening windows, using exhaust fans and high-efficiency ventilators, or air cleaners with HEPA (High Efficiency Particle Arresting) filters can help decrease airborne allergen levels.
Soft furnishings, such as carpets, sofas and mattresses, will hold cat allergen even after a cat is removed from the home, or banished from the bedroom. It has been shown that it can take as long as 20 weeks for levels of allergen in carpets to decrease to the levels found in a home without a cat, and up to five years for cat allergen levels in mattresses to decrease to such levels. Removal or treatment of the carpet and sofa, and encasing of the mattress, will reduce the continued exposure to these reservoirs of allergen.
Cat allergen is also found on vertical surfaces such as walls. Attempts to decrease cat allergen exposure in a home should include wall cleaning.
Studies have demonstrated that washing cats with water removes much of their surface allergen, and significantly reduces the amount of future cat allergen produced. Your cat might prefer to be wiped down with a damp microfibre cloth – less effective but more palatable!
Allergy Advisor, December 2020