Health & Fit: Are There Hypoallergenic Cats? 7 Allergy-Friendly Cat Breeds

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Understanding cat allergies

Most people have heard about hypoallergenic cats, or cats that cannot cause allergies.

But the truth is, no breed of cat or dog can truly be allergen free. Hypoallergenic means that something is less likely to cause an allergic reaction—but it could still happen.

"There is no such thing as a truly hypoallergenic breed of cat or dog," says Maggie Brown-Bury, DVM, an emergency and critical care veterinarian and representative of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.

The misconception comes from a misunderstanding about pet allergies.

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"An allergy is a reaction to a protein," she says. "So while people think they are allergic to pet fur, in fact they are allergic to pet dander, which contains proteins found in the saliva, which is all over the pet because they lick themselves."

Dander is the dead skin cells that fall off of an animal and into the environment.

No animal can go without licking themselves. And any cat will drop dander when they shed. Because of this, even hairless cats can cause problems for people with allergies.

But some breeds may be a better fit for people with allergy than others. Here's what you need to know about so-called hypoallergenic cats.

What about cats can cause allergies?

More than 90 percent of people allergic to cats have a sensitivity to a protein known as Fel d1, which is found in cat saliva, feces, and urine.

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When people with cat allergies are exposed to Fel d1, their immune system creates Y-shaped proteins called antibodies. Antibodies stick to these pet proteins, neutralizing them and labeling them for destruction and removal.

If you're allergic to Fel d1, your immune system will produce an antibody called IgE when it detects it, which can trigger an allergic reaction.

There are several other known cat allergies found in cat saliva, dander, urine, blood, feces, and hair, including Fel d2, Fel d3, Fel d4, and Fel d5. But most people with allergies are sensitive to Fel d1. And many people are only allergic to Fel d1.

Symptoms of minor to moderate cat allergies

Symptoms of cat allergies can vary. They often depends on exposure level and how severe the allergy is.

When cat allergens make contact with the mucus membranes that line the eyes and nose, they can cause swelling and itching, which can lead to a stuffy nose and inflamed eyes, explains Melanie Carver, chief mission officer of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

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"It is common to get itchy eyes after petting an animal then touching your eyes," she says. "If you have an animal allergy, a pet scratch or lick might cause redness in the contact area of your skin."

Cat and dog allergens are also a problem because they are so small, says Darryl C. Zeldin, MD, scientific director for the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

This, in part, is one of the reasons cat and dog allergens are strongly associated with asthma. People with asthma experience swelling, narrowing, and increased mucus production in the airways, which can interfere with breathing.

"Because cat allergens are so small, they can stay in the air a long time, and it's easy to inhale them, where they can get way down into the lungs," he explains.

Outdoor allergen particles, like pollen, mold, and insect droppings, tend to be larger and more prone to causing symptoms where they get stuck, typically in the nose or throat.

Symptoms of cat allergies tend to develop within minutes of exposure. But people with more minor allergies may not develop symptoms until after days of exposure.

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Because pet allergens can be found virtually anywhere, Dr. Zeldin says it's often difficult to determine when or how someone exposed themselves. Carver says that most people have animal allergies for several years or their entire life.

Symptoms of severe cat allergies

People with minor cat allergies tend to develop minor symptoms. But for some, Carver says, exposure can cause serious symptoms, such as major breathing problems.

"Highly sensitive people might begin coughing, wheezing, and experience shortness of breath within 15 to 30 minutes of inhaling allergens like [those on] dander," she says. "Sometimes highly sensitive people will get a serious rash on the face, neck, and upper chest."

Cat allergen exposure can also cause asthma attacks, or severe periods of asthma symptoms when it can become very difficult to breath.

Dr. Zeldin points to a study he contributed to, in which high levels of cat allergens in the bedroom caused 30 percent of asthma attacks in participants with cat allergens.

Why are some cat breeds called hypoallergenic?

"Breeds that are considered 'hypoallergenic' are breeds with hair coats that do not shed, or shed very little," says Dr. Brown-Bury. "Because they do not shed, the dander is not spread around the home the way it is with a pet that sheds a lot, and people in the home suffer fewer allergy symptoms."

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This doesn't mean that so-called hypoallergenic cats produce fewer of the allergens humans can be allergic to. Instead, these breeds simply shed less, which reduces the amount of hair available to hold allergens.

Some cat breeds may actually produce less Fel d1. But more research is needed in order to determine precisely which breeds and how much less of the allergen they produce.

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'Hypoallergenic' cat breeds

Cat breeds that are sometimes referred to as hypoallergenic are often those that tend to be hairless, shed infrequently, or produce lower levels of Fel d1.

All cats can cause symptoms in people with cat allergies. But here are some breeds that are less likely to cause symptoms or less likely to cause severe symptoms:

Sphynx

This hairless breed (Hollywood's favorite supervillain pet) may be one of the best options for people with cat allergies for obvious reasons. These striking-looking cats require regular bathing to stay clean.

Cornish rex and Devon rex

These breeds have a downy, short coat that sheds less often. They also groom themselves less frequently than some other breeds, which means they may release less allergen-containing saliva.

Balinese

Unlike many other long-haired breeds, Balinese cats only have one layer of hair instead of a double layer. Less hair means less shedding than other long-haired cat breeds.

Peterbald

Like the Sphynx, most mature peterbald cats are hairless. Young cats often take a year or two to lose the fur they are born with. Because they have no hair to groom, peterbalds need regular bathing to keep them clean but tend to produce less saliva.

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Siberian

This breed from Siberia seems to have a mutation in the gene responsible for producing Fel d1 that may make them produce less of the allergen. More research is needed to confirm this, though.

Russian blue

Russian blue cats produce lower levels of Fel d1. This breed has a characteristic dark gray coat with bright green eyes.

Lykoi

This breed can be almost hairless while it is molting twice each year. It often has patches of distinctive baldness around its face. These cats also shed less because they only have a layer of top guard hairs, not an undercoat of hair.

A word on older, neutered cats

Many shelters and rescues are filled with older cats and dogs, which are often seen as less desirable than younger pets.

But older cats tend to be more relaxed and can be comfortable with children if they grew up with them. Older cats also don't tend to require litter training or other not-so-fun aspects of caring for a kitten.

Adopting an older cat may offer additional perks for people with cat allergies: production of Fel d1 seems to ebb as cats age.

Some research also indicates that male cats produce more Fel d1 than female cats, though these levels seem to drastically drop after male cats are neutered or castrated.

Choosing a cat

"Because hypoallergenic dogs and cats are purebred animals, it is essential to first familiarize yourself with the general breed predispositions—in terms of personality and heritable medical conditions—of the pet you intend to select," says Barbara Hodges, DVM, director of advocacy and outreach for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.

Some breeds are known for having certain traits that may be more suited for some people, households, and lifestyles than others. Check out The Cat Fanciers' Association's list of cat breeds to learn more about each breed's typical characteristics or personality traits.

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Each cat is unique.

A cat's traits or temperament isn't only dependent on its breed. It can be heavily influenced by the animal's early life and exposure to humans, other animals, and other households. That means the best way to know if a cat is a good match is by spending time with it.

Most shelters and rescue organizations let potential adoptive or rescuing parents spend as much time with animals as they need, hoping they'll become permanently bonded.

Before bringing home a new cat

Welcoming a new cat into your family isn't a decision you should make lightly. Pets—especially cats, with their long life spans—are a major commitment. If things don't work out, the process of re-homing or surrendering an animal can be traumatic, both for people and pets.

One of the biggest factors for people with cat allergies who still decide to get a cat is how allergic they are to that specific animal. Hodges says that since no one can know in advance just how allergic they may be to a new feline companion, it may be wisest and kindest to consider initially fostering a cat before deciding to adopt long term.

"A cat can then enter your household, initially, on a temporary basis, and you will discover firsthand whether the animal is acceptably hypoallergenic," says Hodges.

She explains that the fostering period will simultaneously provide the animal an opportunity to experience a loving family environment, which will positively contribute to that animal's overall welfare and socialization—even if it doesn't end in cat adoption.

"If the animal is suitably hypoallergenic, it will be a win-win situation for both the animal and your family," she says.

If the level of allergy to your foster pet is too high, she adds, you will still benefit by learning more about your allergy and breeds that may work for you. This important knowledge can help inform future fostering or adoption without having made a significant long-term financial and emotional investment.

Where to get a 'hypoallergenic' cat?

When considering getting a new cat, it's vital to think about where you'll get it.

Because so-called hypoallergenic cats must be purebreds to posses the qualities that make their breed less likely to cause allergies, some people think they need to get their cat from a breeder or pet store.

But countries like the United States have a major feral and homeless cat problem. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), an estimated 6.5 million animals enter animals shelters annually throughout the country.

Private breeders can also run their operations with few or no standards, meaning pet care can be minimal, if not abusive.

"Ethical acquisition of your pet is important," says Dr. Hodges. "Obtain your purebred cat from a breed rescue group. Virtually every breed has their own rescue groups, generally run by breed aficionados or from a reputable breeder."

Here's one website dedicated to rescuing purebred cats and finding them forever homes.

Steps to minimize allergies

Of course the most effective way to reduce allergy symptoms in people with cat allergies is to stop their cat exposure. That may mean getting a different type of pet, or re-homing a pet as a last resort.

But tricks like preventing a cat from entering places you spend a lot of time, like bedrooms, living rooms, offices, etc., can help reduce symptoms in people who live with cats.

Other tips for reducing cat allergen exposure include:

  • Clean and vacuum surfaces aggressively and frequently.
  • Keep surfaces as bare as possible and avoid clutter.
  • Regularly clean bedding, clothing, and other fabric surfaces that can gather pet dander and other substances.
  • Groom or bathe cats outdoors to reduce pet hair and dander indoors.
  • Use HEPA air filters or purifiers to remove allergens from the air, especially in bedrooms.
  • Wear a dust mask when cleaning areas that pet allergens linger.
  • Touch the animal as little as possible.
  • Avoid contact with pet hair, feces, urine, blood, and saliva as much as possible.
  • Try to avoid touching mucus membranes in the eyes, nose, or mouth after being in contact with cats.
  • Remove carpeting or use throw rugs and clean them regularly in warm water.
  • Keep cats off furniture, clothing, etc.
  • Dust frequently with a damp cloth.

People with cat allergies can take over-the-counter antihistamines that prevent the release of the histamine, a chemical associated with allergic reactions. Someone may only need to take antihistamines before or after being around cats or a place with cats.

Other people may need to take antihistamines long term if they have severe allergies, live with a cat, or are often around cat or cat allergens. People with severe allergies or asthma may also need to take steroid inhaler medications.

The post Are There Hypoallergenic Cats? 7 Allergy-Friendly Cat Breeds appeared first on The Healthy.

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