Is cat dander bad for babies?

Is cat dander bad for babies? My answer based on careful research is that it is probably or possibly good for babies. However, we are currently (2022) unsure. Please read on. It is helpful to ask: “What is cat dander?” Cat dander describes very small particles about five microns (µm) in diameter. It becomes airborne very easily because of its tiny size. For comparison, the human hair is 75 µm across and a red blood cell is 5 µm across.

Cats and babies in harmony together
Cats and babies in harmony together. Image Source: Instagram user busy_mom_happy_son

Brief description of cat dander

Cat dander is a mixture of dried saliva, dried sebaceous oils, bits of hair and bits of skin. It’s on the cat because the allergen that causes an allergic reaction in people, Fel D1, as in the oils produced by the sebaceous glands and the saliva produced in the mouth and deposited on the cat when they self-groom. Incidentally, Fel D1 is the main cat allergen. There are others. It is a glycoprotein of about 35–38 kDa (a unit of mass). For the technically minded glycoproteins are “are proteins which contain oligosaccharide chains covalently attached to amino acid side-chains”. It is believed to protect the cat’s skin.

Dander flies off around the home when it is dried and when the cat grooms himself again. Or the cat dander will be released from the cat when the cat moves around the home. Remarkably cat dander is in 99.8% of American homes. It is found in dust on sofas, carpets and beds in homes with cats and also in homes without a cat or cats. Cat dander is also found in classrooms, in offices, and shopping centres and in cars.

It is ubiquitous in America (I’m referring to a study conducted in America) and is probably very commonplace in other countries where the domestic cat is popular. Dander is carried from homes where there are cat to other places on people who travel from place to place.

Because it is such a fine particle, it is inhaled by people living in the home including babies. There is a difference of opinion or there was a difference of opinion about whether cat dander is bad for babies and other people.

Good or bad for babies?

My reference study tells me that when a baby or child is heavily exposed to cat dander, they have a lower risk of developing a cat allergy. Another opinion is that the presence of a cat in childhood is a risk factor for sensitisation and for the development of asthma. This is the opposite opinion.

A large scientific study found that if a child within the first year of his or her life is in contact with a cat it “could be protective against allergic diseases”.

Other studies have supported this conclusion. More recent studies found that cat ownership during pregnancy was linked with a reduced risk of being sensitive to allergens in the air. Children were protected from wheezing and atopic asthma at the age of seven. “Atopic” means sensitivity to allergens.

However, one study found that there was no increase or decrease in sensitivity to allergens in children between the ages of 6-10 years due to the presence of a cat in the home.

And in a French study they found that when a cat entered a baby’s room in early life the baby became sensitised to allergens in the air. That means they became more sensitive. On this study therefore exposure to Fel D1 in cat dander is detrimental to babies.

The study that I am reading suggest that this variation and the contradictory conclusions might be due to the microbiota of the gut because of different diets. I am going to interpret that to mean that the mother’s diet and her gut microbiota is passed on to her baby and that this has an impact upon how they respond to the presence of cat dander in the air.

Conclusion

The conclusion that I have gleaned from my research is that we currently don’t know for sure whether cat dander is bad or good for babies. The research, on my assessment, leans towards the latter namely that cat dander helps to protect babies from allergic responses in their future life.

Some more on Fel D1

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Why is my cat itchy but no fleas?

Here is a list of itchy skin diseases other than a current infestation of cat fleas. One of them may apply to your cat. However, there is no substitute for taking your cat to a good veterinarian. Unless you are very competent, I would not try and self-diagnose your cat’s itchy skin unless it is pretty obvious such as fleas jumping out of his fur!

Itchy cat
Itchy cat. Photo by Buenosia Carol from Pexels

Allergic contact dermatitis; this is similar to contact dermatitis. The rash may be wider than on the area of contact. To suffer from this disease a cat has to be repeatedly exposed and/or continuously exposed to an allergen.

Chiggers: this is a tropical flea, the female of which burrows and lays eggs beneath the host’s skin causing painful sores. It causes itching and severe skin irritation between the toes and around the ears and mouth. You might be able to see the larvae which are hardly visible and are read, orange or yellow.

Contact dermatitis: this causes an inflamed skin with bumps, which is itchy and red at the site of contact with an irritant such as paint, detergent or a chemical. It can sometimes be caused by plastic or rubber food dishes. There may be hair loss and a scaly skin.

Ear mites (ododectes): these are nasty little parasites which cause intense irritation in the ear canal. They sometimes migrate out of the ear canal onto the body. Your cat will scratch at her ears, head tilt and shake her head to try and alleviate the itching. An inspection by a veterinarian will reveal excessive brown, waxy or purulent material in the ear canals.

Discharge from cat ear mites can be foul smelling
Discharge from cat ear mites can be foul smelling. Image: PoC.

Feline miliary dermatitis: this is often a flea bite allergy. ‘Miliary’ comes from the word ‘milium’ which is Latin for millet (seeds). The crusty lesions of the skin look like millet seeds. There are small bumps and crusts around the head, back and neck which can be felt beneath the fur. It may be complicated by pyoderma.

Feline miliary dermatitis caused by flea bit allergy
Feline miliary dermatitis caused by flea bit allergy. Photo by Michael. It can be used under a creative commons license.

Flea allergy dermatitis: over the inner thighs, rear legs, back and the base of the tail there will be red, itchy pimple-like bumps. After you have killed the fleas and your cat is flea-free, the scratching will continue.

Food allergy dermatitis: there may be swelling of eyelids combined with severe itching over the head, neck and back. Or it may present as reddened ears. There may be hair loss and oozing sores because the cat scratches and bites herself.

Inhalant allergy a.k.a. atopic dermatitis: this is similar in symptoms to feline miliary dermatitis and the maybe symmetrical hair loss over the body.

Lice: Lice can live on the skin of a cat and feed on it. They are 2 mm long insects or white grains of sandy material, which are the eggs called nits, attached to the hair. They sometimes infest cats with matted coats living in poor conditions. There may be hair loss where the hair has been rubbed off.

Maggots (myiasis): This is a fly larva. It is soft bodied. The fly lays them in the fur, or in an open wound. My experience tells me that if a cat is ill cat is very static for long periods of time outside the home, they may acquire maggots. I don’t think they always cause irritation though.

Scabies (sarcoptic mange): This presents as thick grey to yellow crusts with the hair rubbed off. It causes intense itching around the edges of the ears, neck, face and head.

Ticks: a parasite which is quite large, relatively, when bloated with blood or quite small before feeding. They attached to the skin. They are picked up in long grass. They might be walking slowly through a cat’s fur. They are often found along the back, around the ears and between the toes.

Tick
Tick. Photo in public domain.
Removing ticks on cats
Removing ticks on cats. Photo in public domain.

Walking dandruff (cheyletiella mange): Itching may be mildly caused by large amounts of dry scaly, flaky skin over the neck, sides and back.

Cat dandruff
Cat dandruff. This photo by me is of my late female cat companion.

The list might not be comprehensive. Please do your own research and consult with a good vet if needs be. Itchiness is distressing to very distressing for cats so prompt action is desirable.

SOME MORE ON ITCHY SKIN:

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