Cat allergies are a common health issue for many Americans, with an estimated 6 million to 10 million active cases in the United States. While cat dander and fur appear to trigger reactions in sensitive individuals, they are only vehicles for allergens secreted through the cat's saliva, sweat and skin. These biological chemicals sometimes cause severe reactions, including life-threatening episodes of anaphylaxis.
In most cases, people who are allergic to cats are adversely affected by the feline protein Fel d 1. The molecule is smaller than most spores and pollen particles, so it can penetrate the respiratory system with ease. The protein is secreted from the cat's saliva and sweat glands, and is naturally present in the skin.
Thanks to its small size, Fel d 1 can linger in the air and settle on furniture, carpet and other objects throughout the home. The airborne allergen can remain in a room long after the cat has left. The protein reacts with a common bacterial toxin found throughout the environment, which is part of the reason it creates such a significant inflammatory response, according to University of Cambridge Research News.
Scientists have identified over a dozen other allergens produced by cats, including lipocalin (Fel d 4) and cystatin (Fel d 3). An individual may be sensitive to one or more of these irritants simultaneously.
Mild and Moderate Symptoms
Watery eyes and itchy skin are symptoms many allergy suffers know all too well. Most cases of cat allergies produce mild to moderate symptoms that do not pose immediate danger, but can be an inconvenience and long-term health risk.
Other common symptoms of mild or moderate allergies include:
- Redness or swelling of skin around the eyes.
- Nasal leakage through throat.
- Sneezing and/or coughing.
- Loss of voice.
- Loud or labored breathing.
In rare cases, feline allergens may trigger anaphylaxis in sensitive individuals. This type of reaction is often associated with food allergies, such as peanuts or shellfish, and is potentially life-threatening. Signs of anaphylactic shock usually emerge within seconds or minutes after exposure to the allergen, although some attacks occur hours afterward, according to Anaphylaxis Campaign of the UK.
Common signs of anaphylaxis:
- Flushing of the skin across body.
- Swollen face, mouth or esophagus.
- Labored breathing.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Weakness and dizziness from low blood pressure.
Managing Cat Dander Sensitivity
Naturally, keeping cats out of the home and avoiding contact with them is the most reliable way to reduce the risk of an allergic reaction. However, many mild allergy sufferers choose to keep their pet and pursue medical management of their symptoms. The viability of this option depends on the severity of your symptoms.
Individuals who have suffered anaphylactic shock from exposure to cat dander should consider carrying an emergency treatment such as an epinephrine injector or EpiPen. Parents of allergic children must take steps to ensure a safe environment for their kid. Make sure to explain your child's sensitivity to teachers and other parents. Discuss treatment and management strategies with your doctor to determine the best way to proceed.