When someone is allergic to cats, the most common advice given by physicians is to get rid of the cat. Allergies are also one of the top five reasons why cats are returned to shelters. However, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, nearly 10 million people choose to share their homes with cats and dogs despite being allergic.

Contrary to what most people believe, cat allergies are not caused by cat hair, but  by a protein called Fel d1 found in a cat’s saliva, urine and dander (dried flakes of skin). Researchers at the University of Cambridge found that when the dander is released in the presence of a common environmental bacterial toxin called lipopolysaccharides, or LPS, it activates an immune receptor called TLR 4, triggering allergic reactions, which can range from itching and sneezing to asthma attacks.

“How cat dander causes such a severe allergic reaction in some people has long been a mystery,” said Clare Bryant, the lead author of the study. “Not only did we find out that LPS exacerbates the immune response’s reaction to cat dander, we identified the part of [the] immune system that recognizes it.”

The researchers then used a drug that inhibits TLR 4 and blocked the allergic response. “As drugs have already been developed to inhibit the receptor TLR4, we are hopeful that our research will lead to new and improved treatments for cat and possibly dog allergy sufferers,” Bryant added.

Currently, allergy sufferers can alleviate their reactions with antihistamines, which come with side effects such as drowsiness and nausea, or with immunotherapy (allergy injections), which may have a negative effect on their immune system. The Cambridge discovery could lead to the creation of new drugs that could block the allergy reaction, rather than treating the symptoms.

The study was published in the Journal of Immunology.

Are you allergic to cats? How are you managing your symptoms?

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

39 Comments on Breakthrough in Cat Allergy Research Offers Hope for New Treatments

  1. I am asthmatic and have both seasonal allergies and am allergic to cats. We have 10, strictly indoor stray rescue kitties. I have my singulair 1x daily and my asthma puffs 2x daily. They mainly keep the rest of the world from bothering me horribly. The cats are a big trigger, but after I rescued my first for Thanksgiving 1990 and did 30 days of wheezing, sniffling, tons of kleenex and benedryl, (pure unadulterated misery) each kitty after was a little less of a shock to the system. I can do my kitties, but I have to take a benedryl if I go to a friends’ for a visit and they have cats and some dog breeds-go figure. I think that I did the ‘shock treatment’ or a crash course in the ‘allergy desensitization’ thing that the other writers mentioned. I wouldn’t reccommend my version, but then again, I refuse to let the allergy (s) and asthma dictate my life either. I will have our cats and my Doc is a wonderful man who looks the other way on that discussion and simply changes the dosage or the Rx combo for me.

  2. I had severe allergies but believed that your body can adapt to almost anything, so I got kitties anyway. After two weeks of feeling miserable (with the help of Claritin and air purifiers), my allergies went away 100%. Totally worth it to show some previously homeless kitties that there is love in this world.

    I’m still allergic to other peoples’ cats, though.

  3. Allerpet C on my cats and Allegra around the clock for me because I refuse to live without my cats! I did for years and just finally said no. I can’t wait for this new discovery to be available!

  4. I use homeopathics: a nasal spray and either drops or tabs. I’ve used a few kinds, so I recommend shopping around. You have to work up to your dosage, and be prepared to adjust it. Often, if you are on homeos, if the condition worsens, you should cut back the dose & maybe even stop it. It ususally means your body is dealing with the condition itself, which is one of the points of homeopathy.
    I also do neti, eat pretty healthy, exercise including yoga, vacuum at least semi-regularly, brush my cat once a day, feed my cat healthy, homemade food (I get frozen salmon in the family pack, broil that and a package of ground chicken and then process them separately to vary the mix slightly from meal to meal. This can be frozen, but it lasts about a week-two in the fridge. I serve with some rice, boiled cornmeal or a crumbled RyCrisp cracker, and sometimes a veg, tho’ my cat is indoor/outdoor so he gets alot of grass eating in! Look for Natural Pet Care by Dr. Pitcarin at your library/bookstore– classic!)
    Usually, when my allergies are bothering me I have forgotten to take care of things as stated above.

  5. I misunderstood the title; I thought you were going to report on allergies that cats get. Do you have an article pertaining to that? Thanks.

  6. Dear,
    I am a cat lover who got cat allergy at the age of 14. I got the same advice from my doctor, to get rid of the cat, and I followed it as there was no alternative. Even being in presence of cats, or in a house with cats, would provoke a severe reaction.
    I wouldn’t take medicine because I don’t like to take it, I always look for alternative first, and take pills only if there is no other solution.

    Few years ago I discovered EFT – Emotional Freedom Technique (‘Google’ it, it is everywhere).

    As my best friend who lives in another country got herself a cat last year, and I was visiting her at that time, I didn’t know what else to do then to “tap” into my allergy. If this wouldn’t work, I would have to check in a hotel.
    I “tapped” few times for a half an hour each time, simple way, addressing only the symptoms, and I could sleep in that house that night – all my symptoms were gone, expect for a mild itching and redness when this playful cat scratched me.

    This stayed, and next time I was visiting houses with cats, I didn’t have any reactions, even when cats came to my bed during the night and slept on my pillow, as they like to do. After years and years, I could touch, hold and play with a cat again.

    I don’t dare to take cat home, yet, but I am seriously thinking about it.
    No drugs, no medicine, just EFT. It worked for me, maybe it will work someone else.

    Have a good day, ans cat-allergy free life,

  7. I’ve never heard this from any professional but for what it’s worth, we’re convinced the cat’s diet can have a profound effect. My husband has had mild to moderate cat allergies all his life–itchy, swollen eyes and mild congestion–so we never thought we could have one. A neighbor abandoned a wonderful, sweet senior cat last year so we made a cozy, warm spot for her in our garage for what was to be a couple of months until a friend could take her. In that time I changed her cheap, grain-based diet to high quality canned rabbit & turkey cat food and a grain-free dry food, added flax oil, brushed and wiped her down with a damp towel daily, had her sleep on polartec blankets I wash regularly and made a tent of polartec which catches the loose hair–none floating in the air or on the floor. Add in regular hand-washing after touching her and within two months his symptoms improved so dramatically that when the friend backed out, we decided to keep her and now have her inside. Everyone’s doing great! Ive heard similar stories from two other people so maybe worth a try….

    • I’ve actually heard this from several people who are raw feeders – once they switched their cats’ diet to an all raw diet, friends who were previously allergic no longer reacted to the cats’ presence. I can’t find any science to back this up, either, but it sure seems like it would be worth a try – especially since it’s good for the cat, too!

  8. Hi i just found out I have cat allergies and I’ve had cats most of my life. I’m cleaning and brushing them everyday even got an air purifier. I’m on zrytre and it helps the itching but what can I take to help my red splotches I get and the random swelling. I’m not getting rid of my cats I already told my doctor, she keeps asking me why would I let myself suffer so much and I told her my boys r worth it, if she doesn’t have cats she just wouldn’t understand the bond u crest with them. Also thank u I’m learning so much about my all allergies from everyone Any advice is much appreciated

  9. I have year round allergies and I am allergic to dogs and especially cats. I have one of each. I used to take just Zertec when I just had my dog but had to switch to Allegra when I adopted my cat. I still have to take a Benadryl at night even with the 24hr Allegra.

  10. Daily dose of Singulair. Also, we just adopted more cats. We now have six, and I think that I am becoming immune. They keep our blood pressure down and are a constant source of entertainment.

  11. My husband has severe cat allergies so despite being skeptical about it, we bought a Siberian kitten from a trusted breeder, as we’d done research and found out they were “hypoallergenic”. They produce significantly FelD1 than other breeds.. I couldn’t believe it, but it worked – my husband isn’t allergic to him in the slightest. I have always been a huge cat lover so I was beyond thrilled to own a cat again. 🙂 Just wish we could adopt rescue cats!

  12. A few years ago, I took shots of a drug called Xolair. It’s not exactly like allergy shots that desensitize you… the drug is an anti-IgE that actually prevents the allergic response in the first place… it reduces the histamine reaction as though you were not allergic to begin with. The injections are very expensive (at the time they told me they were over $1,500.00 a shot!) but I had very good insurance at the time, and my co-pays were only $40.00 for the whole month treatment (every two weeks). It worked spectacularly on me! It changed my life. I couldn’t live with a cat before these shots. If you have good insurance, ask your pulmonologist or allergist about it.

  13. I tested highly allergic to cats/dogs & a whole list of seasonal allergens. As a needle-phobic I chose immunotherapy drops. They are taken daily at home, no dr visit needed – very easy.
    I usually have a lot of cats in the house (I foster), so we do a number of things to keep the dander down: Allerpet-C on the cats fur every week, air-purifier, hard wood floors & a lot of vacuuming !
    I told my allergist I would do everything else I could to alleviate the issue, but the cats were staying.

  14. I was born into a house with cats but in my teens I developed allergies and then a few years later asthma. I went for allergy shots which did help but did not eliminate the symptoms completely (although I must add that I didn’t finish the treatment). A couple of years ago, I cat sat for a friend and found that my allergies were definitely better than they used to be so after doing some research, I got a Siberian cat which naturally has lower Fel d1 levels than other breeds of cats. I haven’t had any reaction to my cat at all and I’ve had several other people with severe allergies find that they have little or no reaction to her. I’m thrilled to be able to have a cat in my life again.

  15. growing up i was never allergic to my pets, but about 5 years ago my allergies started getting really bad and when i’m not around my cat (camping, out of town) i have no issues. So I’ve learned it’s from my darling boy. but i’d never get rid of him. My biggest problem is my sinus headaches i get, so i take sinus pressure medication to help with it. I have tried the shot, it lessened my headaches and allergy problems but it never fully went away.

    I’ve also noticed my cat has allergies too. I didn’t realize cats could get allergies so now him and I are in the same boat… wonder if he’s allergic to the human-ness. 🙂

  16. I need this so badly. I grew up with cats, but married a man with severe cat allergies and chronic lung disease. I’ve researched all the options, but short of sending him to live on a farm (as our toddlers suggested), I’ve had to accept only long-distance feline relationships.

    • My husband is the same (the allergies are pretty severe) but he has no issues with the Siberian breed. May be something for you to look into!

  17. My cat gets treated for environmental allergies in the same way that people sometimes do: with a daily herbal supplement in the morning, a traditional allergy pill at night, acupuncture, and monitoring her diet to avoid mild food allergies.

    • The research findings were for people with allergies against cats, not cat with allergies, Gina, but you’re absolutely right, allergy treatments for cats are much the same as allergy treatments for people.

  18. I take Zyrtec daily & use Zatador eye drops. Nothing is perfect, but I will never give up my 2 furry girls.

  19. I share my home with five cats and a Shepherd mix. I’m highly allergic to both cats and dogs. My immunologist recommended allergy shots, but I declined. Everyone’s immune system reacts differently to shots. Immunizations are based on the same theory as allergy shots. My middle son has had his immunizations, but his immune system either “underreacts” or “overreacts,” so the shots are not effective. It would be interesting to find out if an immunologist could start allergy shots and then test the blood to see if they are effective? This makes more sense than investing time and money on shots that may or may not yield positive results. Where I don’t have complete control of my allergy symptoms, steroid nasal spray, Claritin, NasalCrom, and Polysporin on my nose at night all seem to help quell symptoms.

  20. I was highly allergic as a child. Later on, I lived in a house with a cat and found that I gradually became desensitized. I’m now lucky to share my home with 3 cats, and I have virtually no symptoms. The doctor has noticed that I have a lot of “post-nasal drip” but I don’t need to take anything for it. Occasionally when I meet a strange cat I notice a bit of allergies, but they’re nowhere near as severe as when I was a child.

  21. I tried immunotherapy and it wasn’t for me. It was time consuming and frankly, I felt it made me feel worse. I had a co-worker who felt the same and she gave up as well. The shots became very painful.

    We just give our cats a bath every few months which keeps down the dander. Feeding cats good, quality food will also help reduce how much dander they produce (or so I’ve read). I brush the cats every few days as well. Cleaning the house on a regular basis helps. Despite what my skeptical allergist thinks, air purifiers do help! Finally, I take Allegra or Zyrtec. I also suffer from seasonal allergies, so if the indoor and outdoor allergies are really getting to me, I take a Benadryl. I cannot imagine life without my cats and I’ve always suffered from some kind of allergy or another, so I just find a way to deal with it. 🙂 I find that everything I’m doing makes every day just fine.

    • Katie — I had the same problem with immunotherapy. I felt like I had the flu the day of and after my injection and it actually made some of my allergies more intense and sensitive. Now I use Nasonex, Singulair, and Claritin. I can’t imagine life without my pets.

  22. Thank you for this interesting post, Ingrid. I am considering immunotherapy (allergy injections) for environmental allergies, as I would like to avoid long-term drug therapies. Several of my friends have undergone allergy shot treatments and have essentially been cured of allergies. Allergy shots deliver a tiny amount of the allergen into the immune system periodically to build the own immunity/antibodies. From what I’ve read, the main drawbacks to allergy shots is that they require a considerable time commitment. You go in for shots once a week for 5 – 7 months, and then maintenance shots (once a month or perhaps more often) continue for 3 to 5 years. But you build your immunity rapidly within the first 5 – 7 months. I like this approach because it avoids delivering a drug into your system and teaches your body not to react to the allergen. I have friends who used to sneeze when they smelled flowers or were exposed to dust, and now no longer have that problem. Allergy shots also require needles and some expense. But I haven’t seen any data showing that allergy shots damage the immune system (or at least, that this is a common effect). Do you have data on this? It seems my only alternative is to take a drug that suppresses my body’s response to the allergen but does not alter it, so it just treats the symptoms rather than the cause, which is a route I’d rather not take. Thanks for any links you have to data on this!

    • It’s still early. I meant the drawbacks are the longterm commitment and possible aversion to needles.

    • I don’t have any data on this, Anjali, and I do think that immunotherapy is preferable to drug therapy. Intuitively, it seems to me that if you introduce something into your immune system that it needs to fight off, it could cause other problems, although, of course, the doses of these injections are titrated to be small enough to not cause any reactions.

      • Ingrid, thanks, yeah…actually, I believe immunotherapy strengthens the immune system rather than damaging it, teaching it not to put out a lot of energy fighting a perceived enemy, the allergen, and directing energy to “real” enemies. But I would have to confirm this with my allergist. I believe the only possible drawback is that you could have an allergic reaction right after the shot is given. But you’re required to sit in the allergist’s office for about 30 minutes after the shot is given to make sure you’re okay. This approach to me is far preferable to taking long-term drugs of any kind. The amount of allergens in the shot cocktail is extremely tiny. I’m very excited about starting this therapy as I am miserable in springtime when the pollen levels are high and I still have a stuffed nose in summer. The other advantage of allergy shots is that it treats multiple allergies after you’re skin-tested to determine what you’re allergic to. So my shot cocktail could have a little dust mites, a little cat dander, a little pollen. I am not interested in taking multiple drugs for the rest of my life to suppress my immune response or block receptors for multiple allergies. Allergy shots are pretty effective over time.

  23. Daily dose of Claritin, with lots of vaccuuming, dusting & frequent washing of beds/bedding. I also brush the cats routinely to remove dander & excess hair.

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