If you’re plagued by sneezing, wheezing, or red, watery eyes whenever you’re around a feline friend, you’re not alone. An estimated 10 to 20 percent of us have a cat allergy, and there’s evidence that the number is increasing.
But if you also revel in the cuteness of cats, you may be wondering whether there’s an allergy loophole (or even cure-all) somewhere out there. The detailed answer isn’t a definitive “yes” or “no” — but rather somewhere in between.
What Are Allergies?
Allergies exist because the human immune system sometimes overreacts to foreign substances called allergens. To protect itself, the immune system churns out proteins called antibodies — even though the allergens themselves are harmless.
This reaction produces inflammatory responses in the nasal passages and lungs, which can result in annoying allergy symptoms:
Runny or stuffy nose
Itchy skin or a rash
Coughing or wheezing
Chronic conditions like asthma or sinus infection
Though generally rare for pet allergies, the worst-case scenario of allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) can involve swelling, hives, serious breathing issues and even shock or death.
Read More: Everything to Know About Allergies
Cat Allergies Are a Different Beast
According to the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, an estimated 15 to 30 percent of people with existing allergies also have allergic reactions to cats or dogs. And, believe it or not, cat allergies are twice as common as dog allergies.
This reaction is due to a handful of proteins found in cats’ skin cells, fur, saliva and urine. But cat fur itself isn’t actually an allergen.
Oil glands in the skin and salivary glands of cats produce the proteins people react to, and those accumulate on fur and skin during a cat’s self-grooming habits. The highest concentrations of allergens are found on a cat’s face and neck, due to the location of those oil glands.
Additionally, when cats shed tiny flakes of skin and hair — better known as the dreaded “D” word, dander — we become susceptible to a bad time. The allergist Dana Wallace has said that cat dander is smaller than many types of pollen, mold or other animal dander, and remains airborne for a long time after being disturbed from its resting place on upholstered furniture or clothes.
Read More: 5 Cats Who Owned Famous Scientists
Are There Hypoallergenic Cats?
The unfortunate reality is that every cat breed on earth produces allergens, meaning the idea of a truly hypoallergenic cat is pure myth.
Likewise, there is not yet a permanent cure for allergies beyond totally avoiding the affecting allergens in the first place. While there is the occasional case of a person’s allergies miraculously disappearing, the exact reasons for this happening are not well understood.
But there is hope: Some cat breeds do appear to produce lower levels of allergens, specifically the allergy-causing Fel d 1 protein.
As such, these cat breeds — which include the Balinese, Javanese, Bengal, Russian Blue, Siberian, Colorprint Shorthair, Cornish Rex and Sphynx (known for its lack of traditional cat fur) — may be more suitable choices for those torn between a love of cat companionship and how many boxes of antihistamines they must buy.
Treatments for Cat Allergies
Even if you don’t have one of these cat breeds, there are other ways to minimize the effects of cat allergies. Spaying or neutering your cat, for example, actually decreases allergen production.
And though most cats loathe getting wet, bathing your furry friend weekly with specially formulated pet shampoo can decrease allergen concentrations by up to 84 percent, according to Ohio State.
Other medical options can help you keep your allergies under control too, including over-the-counter medicines for relief of your symptoms. Also consider talking to your doctor, as some people can benefit more from prescription allergy medications, immunotherapy shots and other treatments.
Outside of visiting a pharmacy, of course, there are plenty of things you can regularly clean to keep your environment allergen-free.
How To Help Cat Allergies
Always wash your hands after petting or touching a cat, establish cat-free rooms in the home, and vacuum with a HEPA filter-equipped vacuum often. Consider wearing a dust mask for the latter, as it will take a while for allergens to settle back onto surfaces after being disturbed by cleaning.
For the same reason, dry-cleaning using feather dusters is not a great idea. Static-charged or wet-based cleaning products, on the other hand, trap and remove allergens instead of aerosolizing them. You might also consider replacing carpet with smooth flooring like linoleum, tile or wood, as carpeting contains up to 13 times more cat allergens.
Lastly, whenever you wash bedding, clothing or other items where cats may have spent time, be sure to use high water temperatures to remove as many allergens as possible.
While being allergic to cats cannot totally be avoided, you can now see there are plenty of ways to achieve a tolerable balance between suffering allergy symptoms and being around the fluffy family members you love.