Think you’re allergic to cats? These are the symptoms to look out for

Think you’re allergic to cats?
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Being allergic to cats is no fun. As well as causing a host of miserable symptoms, it can mean thinking twice before cuddling up with one of these adorable felines. In some cases, it may even force you to make some difficult decisions. Can you really live with a cat in your home or move in with someone who owns a cat?

“Cat allergies are caused by an abnormal response from the body’s immune system to certain proteins (allergens),” says companion animal vet Dr Rebecca MacMillan. “Affected people produce an immunoglobulin (called IgE) and may start to develop symptoms. The severity of these symptoms varies considerably between individuals.”

Here we take an in-depth look at the issue of being allergic to cats, exploring the main symptoms and addressing whether you really need to flinch whenever a cat wanders nearby or whether there are ways to relieve your symptoms. Could it be a case of using one of the best cat brushes and learning the most effective way of brushing cats? Dr MacMillan helps us find out.

Dr. Rebecca MacMillan
Dr Rebecca MacMillan

Dr Rebecca MacMillan is a companion animal vet who has always had a passion for writing and client communication. She works in the South West and loves complex medical cases.

Symptoms of allergies to cats

If you're allergic to cats, then you’re not alone – up to 20 percent of people are allergic to cats according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. The problem appears to be more acute among those with respiratory allergies and you're also twice as likely to have a cat allergy than you are a dog allergy. 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

You may find yourself quickly coming down with one or more of these symptoms whenever a cat is close by but you won't necessarily suffer to a great degree – the symptoms can be mild and moderate as well as severe.

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, but 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. The hair itself is not actually the problem. Instead, the issue lies with proteins. “The proteins that cause allergic reactions are secreted in the saliva of cats (called Fel d 4) and in the sebaceous glands of the skin (called Fel d 1),” explains Dr MacMillan. 

“These proteins are found concentrated in the fur because, as the cat grooms itself, it spreads saliva and skin secretions throughout their coat. So, it is not the hairs themselves that cause problems per se, but the proteins that end up covering them. Fel d 4 is also shed in urine and feces, so dirty litter trays could be a trigger for some people too.”

Since the proteins are smaller and lighter than dust allergens, the molecules can stay airborne 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.

“Cat owners could transfer proteins to non-cat owners, via loose fur or sebaceous secretions on their clothing,” affirms Dr MacMillan. “These proteins (allergens) are also lightweight and can become airborne in the environment. So, in theory, it would be possible for someone who has not come into direct contact with a cat to develop an allergy, if they were highly susceptible. People who are more at risk of developing allergies tend to have a family history of eczema, asthma, hay fever, or other allergies.”

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 are only mildly allergic to cats, then it may be possible to own one if you take some sensible precautions,” Dr MacMillan says. “These include not allowing the cat to sleep in your bedroom, having hard flooring in your home rather than carpets, vacuuming regularly, using air purifiers, and washing your hands after handling the cat. You should also ensure your cat has access outdoors via a cat flap so that they don’t spend all their time inside with you.”

Using the best vacuum cleaners for pet hair will help to remove fur that could be coated with protein. You may also want to try different types of cat brushes to groom a kitty and ensure as much allergen-carrying hair is 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. Wash cat bedding in a hot setting and 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?

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 shots for up to five years. You can also get over-the-counter medicines for temporary relief from the symptoms.

“Always discuss your allergies with your doctor, as antihistamines and inhalers are required to manage symptoms in some people,” says Dr MacMillan. “If you suffer from a severe allergy, then it would not be recommended to own a cat and you should put your health first.”

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.

“The production of these proteins explains why even hairless cats can cause reactions in certain individuals,| says Dr MacMillan. “However, the amount of proteins produced by different felines varies, which might explain why some cats trigger greater symptoms than others. 

“Long-haired cats are more likely to provoke a reaction, but this is probably due to a greater accumulation of saliva and sebaceous secretions in their coat or because they shed more hairs around the house. Intact male cats also produce for Fel d 1 than females (though neutered male cats are similar to females). There are no truly hypoallergenic cats.”

If you want a bit of relief from a cat, then consider the best outdoor cat enclosures or help your kitties get in and out of the house with ease with the best microchip cat flaps.

David Crookes

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.