Cat allergy: what’s important to know


Many people have a cat allergy. Those who aren't willing to give their beloved pet away have to consider a few things at home.

Cats as pets

Why cats so often cause allergic reactions in humans is still not clearly understood. But one thing is certain: cats are highly popular pets. Around 1.6 million cats were kept by owners in Switzerland in 2018. But, with close contact to these cuddly pets, the risk of developing an allergy increases.

What causes a cat allergy

People often speak of a cat hair allergy but, strictly speaking, this is incorrect. The allergic reaction is actually triggered by proteins found in the saliva, sebaceous glands and skin cells of the animals. These allergens are distributed on and in the cat’s fur when it cleans itself with its tongue – which cats like to do, and thoroughly at that.

Allergic, even in the absence of a cat

Allergens adhere to dust particles, clothing and human hair. As a result, they remain in the air for a long time and are carried from one place to another. This is why even places with usually no animals but lots of people, such as a cinema or classroom, can contain high concentrations of animal allergens.

The typical symptoms of a cat allergy

  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Conjunctivitis with watery and itchy eyes
  • Severe asthma
  • In isolated cases, shock reactions are possible
  • Skin irritations and swellings, if scratched by the cat

How to test if a person is allergic to cats

One way is with blood tests. The person’s blood is tested in a laboratory for antibodies against particular allergens. Another way is the skin test, also known as the prick test. Using a needle, a tiny amount of allergen solution is deposited under the skin on the person’s forearm or back. Should the person be allergic, something like a mosquito bite develops.

How a cat allergy should be treated

With desensitisation – although the effectiveness of this in the case of cat allergies is controversial. With this method, a doctor injects the person with the allergenic substances, increasing the dose over time, or administers them in the form of tablets or drops. The aim is for the body to get used to the allergens and eventually come to tolerate them.

Which cat allergy vaccinations are available

A vaccination for cat allergy sufferers has been developed at the University of Zurich which, by neutralising the main allergen found in saliva, should greatly reduce patients’ symptoms. However, it will still take several years until the vaccine is finally approved.

There is no vaccination for humans.
Noemi Beuret of the aha! Allergy Centre Switzerland

Keeping a cat, despite an allergy: aspects to bear in mind

The most effective way to overcome a cat allergy is to avoid the allergen in the first place, which means that the beloved pet has to go. However, for those whose heart breaks at the thought, taking the following measures at home can help – but they must be adhered to consistently:

  • Keep the cat outside as much as possible.
  • Don’t let the cat into the bedroom.
  • Wash hands after touching the cat.
  • Clean clothes with a clothes roller.
  • Use washable covers for upholstered furniture.
  • Remove rugs and dust collectors.
  • Vacuum regularly. The best devices are those equipped with a level 11 HEPA filter and allergen-proof casing.
  • Mop floors daily.

Allergy sufferers will also require medication in the form of antihistamines, to be prescribed by a doctor. Asthma sufferers should have sprays to hand.

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Cats for people who are allergic: do they exist?

The claim that such cats exist is often made, but is unfounded. No breed has yet been discovered which doesn't cause allergies. All cats cause allergies, although to a different extent. It is known that unneutered males have a particularly high number of allergens. However, people can also have an allergic reaction to neutered males and females.

Why another pet can be an alternative

Other animal species, such as budgies or canaries, produce fewer allergens. According to Noemi Beuret, these also have allergenic potential, but can be an alternative if kept in the right conditions. Also ideal are animals that have no fur, such as fish or turtles. Certain breeds of horses are also often better tolerated. On the subject of dogs, long-haired breeds produce fewer allergens than short-haired ones.

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