Pets are the second most important cause of home allergies, according to Allergy UK, and the country's 10 million cats play a big role in this.
Cat allergens are found in the pet's saliva, sweat and urine. Dander, or hair and skin cells, can be spread around the home and in the air when cats groom themselves.
People with allergies have oversensitive immune systems. Their bodies mistake harmless things - like cat dander - for dangerous invaders, and attack them as they would bacteria or viruses. The symptoms of the allergy are the side effects of your body's assault on the allergen.
Even if a person doesn't have a cat allergy, cats can still bring allergens into the home on their fur, including pollen and mould.
What about so-called "hypoallergenic" cats? While some breeds - like the "hairless" sphinx - are said to be less likely to trigger symptoms of cat allergies than others, any cat has the potential to cause problems. This is true regardless of its breed, hair length, or how much it sheds. So if you know that you or another family member is allergic to cats, getting one - no matter what the breed – is not a good idea.
What are the symptoms of cat allergies?
Symptoms of cat allergies can include:
- Coughing and wheezing
- Hives or a rash on the chest and face
- Red, itchy eyes
- Redness of the skin where a cat has scratched, bitten, or licked you
- Runny, itchy, stuffy nose
Symptoms might develop in just a few minutes or take hours to appear. About 20% to 30% of people with allergic asthma have severe flare-ups after coming in contact with a cat.
How would I know if I have a cat allergy?
Your doctor can arrange for you to have a skin or blood test to see if you're allergic. However, the tests aren't always correct. So the doctor may also want you to try living without a cat for a few months to see how it affects your symptoms.
How are cat allergies treated?
Standard allergy medicines can help control the symptoms of cat allergies. Your doctor might recommend:
- Antihistamines, which are available over the counter or by prescription. Some antihistamines come as nasal sprays.
- Decongestants, over the counter or prescription.
- Other medicines, which affect allergy or asthma symptoms in various ways. Prescription or over the counter steroid treatments are commonly used for allergies.
Immunotherapy is another option. It’s not always effective, and completing treatment can take years. It’s also generally not recommended for children under five. It can be a huge help to some people, so ask your GP.
Unfortunately, there's no way to prevent an allergy. Some studies have shown that exposure to pets as a young child seems to reduce the risk of developing allergies later. On the other hand, a child who already has allergic tendencies may get worse with exposure to a pet.