I think it is very important for shelter workers and cat owners alike to understand how cat allergies work. Some owners may describe not having any noticeable symptoms from one cat but are seen reacting dramatically to another cat they have had contact with at the shelter or at a friend’s house. This can leave people confused. The owner will be sneezing, coughing, and wheezing with one cat but not another, which is absolutely possible.
People who are very allergic to a cat may not be lying about it just so they can surrender their cat. It may come as a surprise that people who are allergic to cats are often allergic to only one protein. A majority of cat allergens are made by the lacrimal, salivary, sebaceous, and perianal glands. The number one allergen people are allergic to is the Fel d 1 protein, which is specific to the cat. According to his paperwork, AJ had an Fel d 1 level of 3, and his dad had a level of 3.1. I got AJ because he was not previously taken care of, which led to aggression issues that also needed to be addressed.
Sebaceous glands are found mostly in the skin and saliva. The protein found in these areas is referred to as the Fel d 1 protein or Felis Domesticus allergen number 1. It has also been documented that humans can become allergic to these proteins at any time in their lives and usually show a reaction within 4 to 8 hours after exposure.
Because Fel d 1 is sticky and lightweight, it can remain suspended in the air for a very long time before settling into carpeting, clothing, and other places. The microscopic particles become airborne from the moment they are excreted. Unfortunately, it has been shown that cat allergens are stickier than almost any other kind of allergen on earth, which can make it a chore to clean the house.
Reducing Allergen Levels
Each cat that you encounter in life produces different amounts of the Fel d 1 protein. In addition, you might be surprised that small factors play into how much of this protein a cat produces in contrast to another cat, just by their color, breed, coat type, and whether they are fixed. Some of these factors follow:
- Female cats make more Fel d 1
- Sterilizing can reduce levels by 15%+
- Every cat has a different level
- Light colored cats make more Fel d 1
- Long haired cats give off less allergen
- Hairless cats do not solve the problem
Long-haired cats produce less allergen because their long fur holds the protein against their skin better than the short-haired cats. There are documented studies and reports, proving female cats release more of the protein than male cats. It has been theorized that silver/smoke color may be carried on the same chromosome as Fel d 1, which causes more allergies.
Bathing cats and grooming cats have not shown any actual positive impact on the amount of Fel d 1 produced. But you can bathe once a week if you feel it helps you. Testing has confirmed that the levels return to normal in just 24 hours after a bath. Because this protein is hormonally controlled, neutering or spaying your cat will reduce levels, too.
People who have lived with a certain allergen for a long time may become partially tolerant of an animal. The problem occurs when there is an interruption of that constant exposure to the Fel d 1 allergen, followed by exposure to it again. The resulting reaction is much stronger.
I recommend visiting a shelter to see which cat elicits a lower reaction than other cats when you pet or love on them. Maybe visit one cat a day to get a true report. It may take a while to find a cat that has a low enough level to not cause any reactions. I do not suggest that you seek out hairless cats because they still groom themselves and release the major allergens into the air, where they remain suspended. This breed does not have any lower allergen levels than other cats, so it is not likely to make a difference in your reaction.
Fel d 1 levels range from 1 mcg to 35 mcg, with some of the lowest levels being between 0.79 mcg to 2.0 mcg. Any levels above 6 mcg are thought to be unacceptable in breeds that are bred for having low allergen levels, such as the Siberian cat. Most breeders publicly post the level of their adults in their breeding program. There is no such thing as a fully hypoallergenic cat that will not cause any symptoms, but you can get really close.
Siberian is one of the breeds that have the lowest levels recorded for the primary allergens that are known to cause reactions. Testing is expensive, but breeders are willing to shell out that money to make sure they are as hypoallergenic as you can get, which is important for people who truly want a cat but cannot risk bringing home a cat with a potentially high allergen level.
Siberian cats boast about 60% lower levels than any other cat and are designed not to shed fur or mat like other long-haired cats. Reactions can still occur in hairless breeds because they still have dander and salivate. Cats groom and sleep most of the day, so you will still find this protein on most things in your house and on you if they rub against you.
One useful method to reduce allergies is to lower the allergen output by combing and brushing once a day. You are removing hair and dander that contain the protein that causes allergic reactions. For maximum effect, I would have someone who does not suffer from allergies brush the cat in a room the sufferer does not use or outside on a harness.
Quick Note On Allergens & Breeds
Fel d 4 (feline lipocalin) and Fel d 2 (feline albumin) are often secondary causes of allergies. About 25% of people who are allergic to horses will react to Fel d 4. You are considered to be horse/cat cross-reactive at this point. Twenty percent of people who are severely allergic to horses, dogs, and rabbits will usually have less allergic reaction to the Fel d 1 protein if the cat has a low level of it.
If the presence of a cat causes asthma or other severe symptoms, then it is thought to occur due to either Fel d 1 or Fel d 4. As of right now, there is only a test for seeing how low Fel d 1 levels are for a cat; there are no tests available for the other allergens.
There is no simple answer to allergies, other than choosing a cat with a known low level or following the guidelines in this article. Asthma and eczema are common with Fel d 4. There are 5 important cat allergens (and 13 allergens in total), but these three allergens are the most active. The five top allergens are listed below in order of their impact:
- Fel d 1 (Secretoglobin)
- Fel d 2 (Albumin)
- Fel d 3 (Cystatin)
- Fel d 4 (Lipocalin)
- IGA (Immunoglobin A)
I did not know that AJ was a Siberian at the time of adoption. Reading the detailed papers about hypoallergenic cats that came with AJ jump started my massive research mission on this topic. My Siberian cat has a very long hair coat, and I can attest to the fact that he never mats, regardless of how much I brush him. He has a triple coat, as Siberian cats always do, which is stunning when brushed out. I contacted the breeder (who was livid that the previous owner had turned him in), and she told me I could keep him.
My Siberian cat elicits a very low allergic reaction from my friend, who is extremely allergic to cats. What would normally be a sneeze or a cough ends up being just a very slight watery eye after a whole night of exposure to the cat. It helps that he is a neutered male and came from a sire who has extremely low levels of Fel d 1.
Other breeds that produce a lower than normal level include the Balinese (long-haired Siamese) and the Abyssinian. Recent literature states that the long-haired gene of the Balinese is associated with a lower level of Fel d 1, but nowhere near as low as a Siberian.
Treating The Cat
Spray-on anti-allergy substances for reducing the extent of allergies have been determined to be ineffective in most instances. Other people who have tried the shampoos and dips agree that the impact they have is negligible at best. Omega-3 fatty acids are likely to help way more than anti-allergy substances.
At the same time, a few breeders think that some of these products work very well. All I can say is that it takes some trial and error to find out what is going to work for you and your cat. Rather than treating the cat, it can be easier for everyone to take allergy shots or a pill to reduce symptoms. I have a few friends who have a ton of cats and take shots so they can keep their cats with them.
Always work on reducing stress for your cat because stress will often cause a cat to shed more. This is one reason why bringing a cat home from the shelter for a trial run may be ideal because the cat may shed more in the shelter due to stress. It can be hard to get a true story from one snapshot in time.
Cleaning The House
Vacuuming can help reduce the number of allergens in the house, but you should be careful when doing so. Many vacuums on the market just stir up the dust and spread it throughout the house, which makes it worse. You do not want your efforts to backfire.
You will, hands down, need a vacuum that uses a filtration device, or you will be shooting yourself in the foot by buying a regular vacuum. I would actually try to find a microfiltration device that is designed to reduce feline allergens. I prefer that the one who suffers from allergies not do the vacuuming.
When dusting, you will want to use furniture polish, which reduces the number of cat allergens and dust that go airborne by about 95% to 99%, which is huge for any cat owner.
Setting Up Your Home For Success
If you know you suffer from allergies, then I want you to think about home design when setting it up for a cat.. You can do this by limiting certain fabrics in your home. I recommend a hardwood floor since carpet can pick up to 100 to 150 times the amount of cat allergens as hardwood. You have to remember all porous materials can pick up allergens. With that in mind, simple decisions like choosing blinds over drapes can be huge.
Hypoallergenic pillows and an air purifier with a HEPA filter are musts for any long-time sufferer to have in his arsenal. Maybe a few air purifiers, depending on the number of cats and the size of your home. Some name brand purifiers remove up to 99% of all allergens in a given room. Lastly, the bedroom should be cat-free if the sufferer is having a hard time sleeping.
Immediately wash your hands once you have had an interaction with your cat for an extended period of time. Use soap and water for about 30 seconds to remove all traces of the cat allergen. What usually happens is that someone will pet a cat, then touch her own face by habit, which can lead to the emergence of symptoms.
Do your laundry every single day and wash your sheets as often as you can to remove traces of the cat allergen. Washing machines are capable of removing even the smallest cat allergen. So while your clothes do not look dirty, they really are!
Purina Research Into A Diet To Help With Symptoms
Recent research is showing that you can reduce your reaction to the major allergy-causing protein in cats by feeding your cat a new diet that is being worked on by Purina. This new diet combats that protein. Cat owners who find themselves sneezing and breaking out when exposed to a cat may find some relief in the future.
One hundred and five cats were fed this diet containing the antibody that combats the major allergy-causing protein for ten weeks. The amount of active Fel d1 protein was reduced by 40-50 percent on 97% of the cats, according to research published in the Immunity, Inflammation, and Disease paper found on the Cornell website. Eleven cat owners in a pilot study experienced significantly reduced symptoms.
According to Ebenezer Satyaraj, the director of molecular nutrition at Purina, the antibody to combat Fel d1 is derived from eggs and can be added to cat food to neutralize the protein that is found in the saliva. The antibody actually disables the Fel d1 protein after production and before it can reach the hair and dander, which prevents the allergic response in sensitive individuals.
It is hard to say just how effective the diet would be, given the fact that the Fel d1 protein is so sticky and there are highly variable levels of Fel d1 in the cat population. It may be very effective when paired with proper house cleaning to prevent a build-up of that level, which would trigger an allergic reaction.
I personally am very excited to see what the next phase of this diet design is. Oral antibodies cannot be given to humans since those antibodies are broken down in the gut and never reach the target. Finding a technique that would not be rendered ineffective due to the way our body works is something that has eluded scientists for quite some time.
The number of cat owners who choose to surrender their cats due to major allergies is sad, and anything we can do to prevent this has the potential of becoming the next medical breakthrough. Barriers to cat ownership could be knocked down, and more cats could find their forever homes. The Fel d1 protein has been shown to be responsible for up to 95% of allergic reactions.
As of right now, there is not an immediate plan for Purina to release the antibody for purchase until more studies have been done and research compiled. The route that Purina is taking to eliminate cat allergies is unique but needs further innovation before it is perfect since it still has a margin for error.