Allergic to cats? 12 symptoms and how to manage your allergy

Allergic to cats
(Image credit: Getty)

Even though kitties are extremely cute, some people discover they're actually allergic to cats. Their immune systems overreact whenever a cat wanders nearby and they find they need to move away in order to prevent a host of miserable symptoms.

If this situation applies to you, then you may feel rather sad. After all, it makes bringing a cat into your life rather difficult but what if you've already introduced a kitty into your home or moved into a house where a cat already lives? Are you going to be facing some difficult decisions or can a good cat brush and regular grooming work wonders? 

Here, we address such burning questions but, before we do, rest assured that you are certainly not alone. It's suggested that as many as 20 per cent of adults are allergic to cats (opens in new tab) and, what's more, the number is rising. 

The problem appears to be more acute among those with respiratory allergies. You're also twice as likely to have a cat allergy than you are a dog allergy.

Symptoms of allergies to cats

If you're allergic to cats, then you may find yourself coming down with one or more symptoms. You won't necessarily suffer to a great degree – the symptoms can be mild and moderate as well as severe – but you may find they come on quickly whenever a cat is close by.

The most common symptoms are:

  • Sneezing
  • Itchy, runny or blocked nose
  • Itchy roof or mouth or throat
  • Red or itchy eyes
  • Postnasal drip
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Whistling when exhaling
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Rashes or hives

If you do suffer from any of these symptoms when you're around cats, then it may be worth talking to your doctor to be absolutely sure moggies are the cause. It is possible to have skin or blood tests to confirm you're allergic to cats.

Allergic to cats

(Image credit: Getty)

What triggers a cat allergy?

It's often said that hair is the cause of a cat allergy and it's easy to see why people would think this is the case. Indeed, when cats shed their fur, they not only leave it on furniture, carpets and clothes, they also send it flying into the air. It's a reasonable assumption to believe you may be breathing in the hair and therefore falling ill.

But that's not strictly true and the hair itself is not actually the problem. Instead, the issue lies with a protein called Fel d 1 that's produced in a cat's mouth and skin. When cats lick themselves, they spread this protein and help to send it into the air on pieces of dried skin. Since Fed d 1 is smaller and lighter than dust allergens, the molecules can stay airbourne for hours, making it possible to breathe them deep into your lungs which is why the protein can cause respiratory problems.

What's more, the protein is also very sticky. Once it gets into the air, it will land on furniture, clothes and your skin and it can also take a good few months before it ends up breaking down. This means coming into contact with a cat owner rather than the moggy itself can also be triggering. The protein is often found in public areas where there are no cats because owners can transfer it there.

Allergic to cats

(Image credit: Getty)

Can you live with cats if you are allergic?

Yes, absolutely, although much depends on how severe your symptoms are. If you really suffer with a cat allergy then being near a moggy won't make you happy but if your symptoms are mild or moderate, then you could try some simple steps to reduce the cause of the problem.

Using the best vacuum cleaners for pet hair, for example, will help to remove fur that could be coated with the Fed d 1 protein. You may also want to try different types of cat brushes to groom a kitty and ensure as much allergen-carrying hair is being removed as possible. 

You may want to do this outdoors rather than risk spreading the protein inside your home and it could be an idea to wear goggles and gloves if you think you're going to suffer. It's a good idea, too, to ensure one or two rooms (including the bedroom) are cat-free. 

You should also wash your hands if you touch a cat and ensure rooms are well ventilated. It's a good idea to regularly wash cat bedding on a hot setting, too, and to wipe down surfaces in rooms where cats tend to roam. Consider allergen-trapping carpets and high-efficiency particulate air filters.

Can I build up a tolerance to cat allergies?

Being honest, if you're struggling with an animal allergy, avoidance is the best remedy. But talk to your doctor about immunotherapy which involves small injections of the allergen each week for about six months followed by monthly jabs for up to five years. You can also get over-the-counter medicines for temporary relief from the symptoms.

How can you stop being allergic to cats?

Building up a tolerance is one way and, if you take the measures detailed above, then there is a chance you can reduce symptoms. But there's no real quick fix, unfortunately, and it's not even as simple as opting for hypoallergenic cat breeds since all cats produce allergens. 

The benefit of these breeds lies in them producing a lower level of allergens than others (they also shed less fur). Female cats also produce a lower level of allergens so avoiding the males may go some way to relieving your symptoms too.

David Crookes has been a journalist for more than 20 years and he has written for a host of magazines, newspapers, websites and books including World of Animals, BBC Earth, Dogs and Canines, Gadget and The Independent. Born in England, he lives in a household with two cats but he’s also keenly interested in the differences between the huge number of dog breeds — in fact, you can read many of his breed guides here on PetsRadar. With a lifelong passion for technology, too, he’s always on the lookout for useful devices that will allow people to spend more time with their pets.