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Is there such a thing as a hypoallergenic cat?

Is there such a thing as a non-allergic cat?

 

Animal lovers make for the most despairing allergy suffers.

 

three short-haired kittensWe adorers of all things fluffy and furry would love nothing more than to fill our homes with the tender little mews of kittens, or the glorious purring of a fat, old tomcat nestled on our laps.

 

When someone says this or that breed of cat is “hypoallergenic” our ears – and all of our hopes and dreams – prick right up.

 

Can it possibly be true? Is there a way for us sneezers and wheezers to finally share in the jubilance that only cat owners know?

 

What is an allergy?

 

sneezing womanAllergy is a body’s over-sensitive immune response to some substance that is harmless to most people. Some common allergies are to molds, foods, medications, pollen, insects, and, of course, pets.

 

When an allergic person is exposed to a substance she is allergic to, the immune response causes inflammation, which can take the form of itchy or swollen eyes, runny nose, sneezing, itchy skin, or hives. In the worst cases, an allergic reaction leads to a more serious response called anaphylaxis. During anaphylaxis the body’s immune response releases a flood of chemicals that can cause a sudden drop in blood pressure and an inability to breathe.

 

sneezing womanMore than half the people in the U.S. say they are allergic to something, and so it’s not surprising that there is so much interest in hypoallergenic pets.

 

The saddest fact about cat allergies for cat lovers

 

There has been a lot of attention given to the idea of breeding a hypoallergenic dog, but allergies to cats are actually twice as common as allergies to dogs.[1]

 

girl with allergy to British shorthair catWhen a person is allergic to a cat, even a tiny exposure can cause an avalanche of symptoms. Each allergic person is an individual so it’s possible that one allergic person could hold a cat for a short amount of time and endure only mild symptoms, while another person may only have to step foot into a home containing a cat to have a full-blown asthma attack.

 

Allergens don’t tend to deteriorate very quickly, either, so an allergy suffer could have a dramatic allergic response even months after a former cat resident has left a home.

 

Why are people allergic to cats? 

 

boy with allergy to catWhen someone is allergic to cats, they are not allergic to the animal’s fur as is commonly thought. The allergy is to a protein in the saliva, skin, and anal glands[2] and every cat has saliva, skin, and glands.

 

Cat saliva, etc. contains a very specific protein called Fel d 1. Dogs do not produce this protein, which is why some people are allergic to cats and not dogs.

 

When a cat begins grooming she covers herself in saliva. The saliva on her fur dries and then Fel d 1-infused saliva particles get released into the air. As she sheds, her saliva-coated hair finds its way into every corner of your home. Fel d 1 is also produced by the sebaceous glands in a cat’s skin, which goes fluttering off in miniscule flakes as skin cells are naturally shed as dander.

 

Hairless cats are not the answer for allergy sufferers

 

Sphynx catBecause some people mistakenly believe that fur is the cause of allergy, they believe a hairless cat, such as the Sphynx, is the answer to their dreams. And while it’s true that a hairless cat lacks fur, which can trap and spread the allergens around your home, they still produce the allergic proteins continuously, just like any other cat.

 

It should be noted here that Fel d 1 is not the only culprit. At least 10 total cat allergens have been identified, but the antibody to Fel d 1 protein has been found in 80-95% of cat allergy sufferers, so Fel d 1 is likely the main offender.[3]

 

Is there such a thing as a hypoallergenic cat?

 

Since every cat produces saliva and has skin, it makes sense that there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic cat. And yet, that’s not the whole answer.

 

shedding cat with hair on the sofaFor one thing, male cats produce more Fel d 1 than female cats, although neutered males produce less than intact males. Some individual animals seem to shed less Fel d 1 into the air than others, but this has nothing to do with the length of fur – in other words, a short-haired cat is no more or less allergic than a long-haired cat, generally speaking.

 

As a side note, washing a cat doesn’t really help, as the amount of Fel d 1 on the skin returns to normal in short order, and the amount of Fel d 1 floating around in the air returns even more quickly than that after a bath.[4] Your cat will be happy to hear this news.

Learn how to bathe your cat here

And yet, there is one breed that seems to be less allergic than others

 

Siberian CatThe Siberian cat, a big, fluffy long-haired cat breed, seems to be associated with a reduced allergic response in people who are allergic to cats. No one really knows why, but a 2017 study[5] of two cat genes called Ch1 and Ch2 might begin to explain it.

 

Ch1 and Ch2 are responsible for coding the Fel d 1 protein. That means that Ch1 and Ch2 are like the factory managers at the Fel d 1 protein factory. They provide instructions to a cat’s body about how to make Fel d 1. Scientists found an inordinate number of mutations in Ch1 and Ch2 in Siberian cats.

 

A mutated gene is one that has an incorrect DNA sequence. Sometimes that change is minor and the gene can still do its job, but sometimes a mutation is significant enough that it prevents a gene from being able to work as it is supposed to.

 

Siberian CatCould these Ch1 and Ch2 gene mutations be affecting the formation of Fel d 1 protein in Siberian cats? And could that, in turn, be making them less allergic?

 

More research is needed, but it’s an intriguing possibility for allergic cat lovers everywhere.

 

It is important to note that not every Siberian cat has these gene mutations. Allergy sufferers should not acquire a Siberian cat thinking that it will be hypoallergenic. A Siberian cat with no mutated genes may be as allergenic as any other cat, and even cats with mutated genes may still be able to produce some Fel d 1 and any of the other 10+ allergic proteins that cats may produce.

 

Another weird possibility for cat allergy suffers

 

Scientists at Nestle Purina Petcare have very interesting approach to solving the cat-allergy problem.

 

eggsSince cats produce Fel d 1 in their saliva, they found something that would neutralize the Fel d 1 at its source: polyclonal egg IgY antibodies.[6]

 

What they did was expose chickens to a lot of the Fel d 1 protein. The chickens then laid eggs that contained an antibody to that protein. And when they fed a special diet to the cats containing those eggs, it reduced the amount of Fel d 1 protein in their saliva.

 

chickenBefore you get too excited, this study was more experimental than practical. For one thing, it did not eliminate Fel d 1 from cats’ saliva. The cats did have 47% less active Fel d 1 in their fur after 3 weeks on the diet making them potentially less allergenic, but certainly not non-allergenic.

 

But it’s an interesting start.

 

Designer hypoallergenic cats?

 

Would you pay $27,000 to have a specially bred hypoallergenic cat? Some people would, and that’s how Lifestyle Pets, formerly known as Allerca, duped desperate cat lovers out of their money.

 

Lifestyle Pets was founded by Simon Brodie, a man previously involved in multiple fraudulent businesses, including a fraudulent hot-air balloon business, for which he spent two years in jail.

 

Brodie claimed to have bred cats with a mutated version of the Fel d 1 gene, but never submitted any of his claims about the cats for scientific review. A 2013 report by ABC News[7] asserts that cats sold by Lifestyle pets were no more hypoallergenic than any other cats, but by then many people had paid for cats they never received.

 

In 2010 the company announced that it will no longer be breeding cats, but the website remains active.

 

Other companies, including Felix Pets in Denver and Indoor Technologies in Virginia have each filed patents on the idea that cats can be genetically modified to be truly non-allergenic.

 

A gene-editing tool called CRISPR theoretically makes it easy to “edit” a cat. But producing a healthy, living animal is the hard part. No one knows what will happen if a gene is removed.

 

David Avner, founder of Felix Pets, says he has been working on “making” an allergen-free cat since 2004.

 

I guess we allergy sufferers shouldn’t hold our breath.

 

[1] Sheridan, Kate. “Don't Hold Your Breath for Allergy-Free Cats.” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 2 Apr. 2020, www.technologyreview.com/2018/07/19/141396/dont-hold-your-breath-for-allergy-free-cats/.

 

 _______________

Footnotes 

[1] “AAFA.” Allergic to Your Pet? Learn about Dog and Cat Allergies, www.aafa.org/pet-dog-cat-allergies/.

 

[2] Bonnet, B, et al. “An Update on Molecular Cat Allergens: Fel d 1 and What Else? Chapter 1: Fel d 1, the Major Cat Allergen.” Allergy, Asthma, and Clinical Immunology : Official Journal of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, BioMed Central, 10 Apr. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5891966/.

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] Sartore, et al. “Polymorphism Analysis of Ch1 and Ch2 Genes in the Siberian Cat.” MDPI, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 1 Dec. 2017, www.mdpi.com/2306-7381/4/4/63.

 

[6] Satyaraj, Ebenezer & Gardner, Cari & Filipi, Ivan & Cramer, Kerry & Sherrill, Scott. (2019). Reduction of active Fel d1 from cats using an antiFel d1 egg IgY antibody. Immunity, Inflammation and Disease. 7. 10.1002/iid3.244.

[7] ABC News, ABC News Network, abcnews.go.com/Nightline/video/man-hypoallergenic-cats-19695238.

 

[8] Sheridan, Kate. “Don't Hold Your Breath for Allergy-Free Cats.” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 2 Apr. 2020, www.technologyreview.com/2018/07/19/141396/dont-hold-your-breath-for-allergy-free-cats/.

 

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