If you have pet allergies, chances are it’s fluffy instead of fido that’s making you sneeze. While an estimated 10 percent of people are allergic to household pets, allergies to cats are twice as common as allergies to dogs, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
among children, about one in seven between the ages of 6 and 19 turn out to be allergic to cats.
contrary to popular belief, it’s not cat fur that causes those itchy, watery eyes. most people with cat allergies react to a protein found in cat fur called fel d 1.
the reason cat allergies are more common has to do with the size and shape of the protein molecule, rather than the amount of dander the animal sheds, according to mark larché, professor of immunology at mcmaster university of ontario.
The protein enters the air through bits of cat hair and fur, and is so small and light (about one-tenth the size of an allergen in dust) that it can stay airborne for hours. “Dog allergens don’t stay in the air the same way cat allergens do. The size of the particles is just right for breathing deep into the lungs,” Larché said.
The fel d 1 protein is also incredibly sticky, easily sticking to human skin and clothing and staying there, making it ubiquitous in the environment. it’s been found in places where there are no cats: classrooms, doctor’s offices, even in the arctic, larché said.
While there are no truly hypoallergenic breeds of cat (all cats make the protein, which experts surmise may have something to do with pheromone signaling), some cats make it more than others.
“male cats, especially non-neutered males, produce more fe d 1 than female cats. testosterone increases glandular secretions,” said dr. Andrew Kim, an allergist at the Fredricksburg and Fairfax Allergy and Asthma Centers, Virginia.
If you have allergies to cats, there are steps you can take to reduce them. avoiding contact with cats is an option, although it is not always a popular option. even after taking a cat out of the house, allergen levels can remain high for up to six months, kim said.
Limiting a cat’s access to allergy-friendly rooms, using high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, bathing the cat, and removing allergen-trapping rugs can also help.
For those who can’t avoid cat dander, allergy shots may be an option. small injections of the allergen can help build immune system tolerance over time. “It takes about six months of weekly injections of increasing potency to reach a maintenance level, followed by three to five years of monthly injections, for the therapy to reach full efficacy,” said dr. jackie eghrari-sabet, allergist and founder of family allergy and asthma care in gaithersburg, md.
A less onerous solution to cat allergies may be on the way. Phase 3 clinical trials are scheduled to begin this fall for a cat allergy vaccine larché helped develop. Early tests have shown the vaccine to be safe and effective without some of the side effects of allergy shots, such as skin reactions and difficulty breathing. larché receives research funding from the pharmaceutical companies adiga life sciences and circassia.
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