What is an allergy?
Whether it is cats, ragweed pollen, poison ivy or bee stings, the human body responds to a "foreign" substance (called an allergen) by starting a whole sequence of events after exposure.
What happens during an "allergic reaction?"
All the physical processes that are a natural response to substances recognized as "foreign" to the body are exaggerated in an allergic individual. This exaggerated response to exposure is caused by a substance produced by the body called histamine (thus Antihistamines are useful in allergic situations).
Histamine release causes many responses. The ones directly noticeable by the affected person are:
- itching and possibly a rash at the site of exposure to the allergen
- runny nose
- nasal stuffiness
- itchy watery eyes if it is an airborne allergen.
An allergic response can go further. It can cause swelling in the throat and constriction of the air sacs in the lungs and changes in blood circulation (including the heart) and inappropriate release of powerful hormones. The response can be mild or severe and in some cases can be fatal due to respiratory failure and/or circulatory collapse.
Some Allergy facts:
- Allergies are thought to be caused by a surplus of certain immunoglobulins, particularly one called IgE.
- It is well established that allergies are an hereditary problem.
- If one parent has allergies, over 25% of the children will have allergies to similar substances.
- If both parents are allergic, then over 50% of the children will have similar allergies.
What is a cat allergy?
It is an allergic response to inhaling or coming in direct contact with cat dander (dead skin cells), the tiny mites that live on cat dander, and/or cat saliva (fresh or dried). The response may be minimal such as a little nasal sniffling and itchy eyes, to a problem that causes difficulty in breathing (asthma like symptoms) and beyond.
What can I do if I am allergic to cats?
Obviously, make sure you are not around one. That is the one sure "cure". However, for cat lovers, this answer just won't do. Unfortunately, there are some people so seriously allergic that no matter how much they love cats, they must avoid them. If you are not that sensitive, there are several things that can be done to minimize your discomfort.
- The most direct approach is to take oral antihistamine drugs.
Either the over-the-counter or prescription ones work equally well. The prescription ones have an advantage in that they cause little drowsiness (some types cause no drowsiness). For most mild to moderately allergic persons, these drugs will make the symptoms tolerable.
The disadvantage is that most antihistamine users are stuck taking a drug on a daily basis.
For use with or without oral antihistamines, there are several topical products (eye drops and nasal sprays) that are useful in individuals who have problems in their eyes and/or nasal passages only. Again, there are OTC and prescription alternatives.
- The next medical intervention to mention is allergy shots.
The effectiveness of allergy desensitization shots is debatable. However, some individuals respond well to this treatment.
Be aware that this option is a long term commitment - usually life long. Even avid cat lovers may not be able to bear the thought of being stuck with a needle once a week or so.
- A few cat fanciers have reported that some of the herbal medicinals havehelped their allergy problems.
These items generally make only a modest improvement and would not be suitable for the moderate to severe cat allergy patient.
Are there any non-medical options available?
There are many approaches that can make a big difference if done routinely for the mild to moderate cat allergy patient. They are mainly lifestyle changes, but a few liquid "potions", electronic air quality improving devices, and specialty appliances can help tremendously. Let's cover these topics one at a time.
- The first one is . . .DO NOT let kitty in your bedroom.
Even if the cat is not allowed to sleep with you, the dander, mites and dried saliva are everywhere - and now you are going to be in a room where all these things are closed in with you for 6 to 8 hours straight! Also you will be putting your face right on the pillow where Sylvester has been sleeping all day and wrapping your body in the covers he has been preening himself on. Along the same line, you can limit feline access to certain other areas of the house where the allergy sufferer spends a lot of time. This would be more applicable for the non-feline fancier allergy sufferer member of the household. If you limit Garfield from too many areas, when will you get to be with him?
- Another very important item is house cleaning.
Clean often and completely. Pay particular attention to materials that will collect the dust sized particles such as drapes, furniture, and especially the carpeting. In fact, if you are committed enough to your cat, any rooms he/she is allowed in would be better off with vinyl, tile, or hardwood flooring. I think you get the idea about "dust collectors".
A good way to keep things clean enough without making you allergy miserable on cleaning days is to hire a house cleaner. At least have someone do the vacuuming. This may sound like too much expense to justify for owning a cat. However, keep in mind that house dust and dust mites are a leading cause of allergy in all allergy suffers. So even if you don't have a cat . . You like that, huh? You could sell this idea to your husband/wife!
Vacuum Cleaner: A specialty appliance that is quite useful is a vacuum cleaner designed to eliminate returning allergen laden air into the room. There are special hypoallergenic disposable dust bags made for most brands of vacuums that will help with even an older model of vacuum. The better vacuum models will have a specific chamber for a "post filter" that will reduce small particles coming out of the vacuum to a negligible level. An allergy sufferer should not take the dust bag out of a vacuum.
Allergen reducing agents: Generally speaking, most products promoted to "eliminate allergy causing substances" are useless. However if a relative or friend says something is helpful, you might as well try it.
The most effective product I know to reduce cat dander, etc is DISTILLED WATER. A wash cloth moistened with it and stroked down the entire body, tail and legs twice a week will decrease the amount of allergens the cats sheds. By itself, this procedure will do little for most people. In conjunction with the other recommendations it can make a noticeable difference. Your cat will either love it or hate it (tell her it's a small price to pay to be assured of gourmet cat cuisine).
Air quality improving devices:
The idea here is to remove as many airborne allergens as possible from the environment. Theoretically, if a device could remove all the airborne allergens and the allergy sufferer never touched their cat, they would never have an allergic reaction. Realistically, you can't expect the machine to remove every single allergen any more than a cat fancier could keep their hands off a purring cat.
So, these devices are not perfect. Keeping that in mind, even if you had a house cleaner coming in once a week using a state of the art vacuum and would wipe Tom down with distilled water for you, there would still be a need to keep the allergens at a minimum in between.
Ionizer Device: I highly recommend an Alpine Aire ionizer/ozone generator device. They cost a lot ($300 - $800.00) but you will be pleasantly surprised how your cat AND OTHER allergy problems will be improved. The basic idea of the unit is that it causes airborne particles to clump together and thus fall right out of the air where they can be easily vacuumed up. They do not filter the air, so no filters to change Another big plus is that their affect takes place in your air ducts as well, thus reducing another prime source of allergens. Most (not all) people like the fresh (after a thunderstorm) smell they leave. It also is amazing how it eliminates any litterbox odor without leaving a deodorant type odor.
Hepa Filter: Next, a good (and I emphasize GOOD) HEPA air filter is a must in the bedroom. It must be large enough for the room size and it must be constructed in such a fashion where it is sealed at the top and bottom of the HEPA filter cartridge. The cheaper "unsealed" models will blow out a significant portion of unfiltered air which defeats the whole purpose. Again, this device is good for allergies other than cats too. It is portable, so it can be taken to the den while you're watching TV with Felix. Electrostatic or other "on furnace" filters are also very helpful in reducing airborne allergens.
I refer you to your allergist for recommended brands (a word of advice, don't tell the doctor you want to know because you want a cat).
Unfortunately allergy suffers must pay an extra price (both in dollars and in effort) in order to enjoy a house cat. No solution by itself or in combination guarantees success. However, if effort and bucks are expended, it is reasonable to expect that the mild to moderate cat allergy sufferer will be able to have a cat and experience minimal medical problems.
--Mark McKenzie, Registered Pharmacist