By: Gilbert L. Fuld, MD, FAAP & Elizabeth C. Matsui, MD, FAAP
Of all pet allergies, reactions to cats are the most common. Although asthma is not always caused by allergies, 90% of children who have asthma also have allergies. And studies suggest up to 40% of children with asthma may develop allergy symptoms when they are exposed to cats.
How are allergic reactions caused by cats?
Children sensitive to certain proteins (allergens) can experience an allergic reaction. A cat's allergens are in its dander (dried skin flakes that get into the air or attach to its fur), urine, and saliva. The allergens are carried on sticky, microscopic particles through the air and land on all surfaces. That's why it is very hard to avoid cat allergens in a home. An allergic child who breathes in cat allergens can have itchy eyes, sneezing, runny nose, a scratchy throat, hives, and/or a flare up of asthma symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
Are some cats hypoallergenic?
Since all cats produce cat allergens, there is no such thing as a non-allergic cat (or dog, for that matter).
How can I tell if my child is allergic to cats?
If you notice your child tends to start sniffling, sneezing or rubbing their eyes around cats, that could signal a cat allergy. But the best way to determine if your child is allergic to cats is through allergy testing, either with a skin test or a blood test.
Are there ways to decrease cat allergen exposure in the home?
Cats live in more than 30% of all U.S. households. Even when someone in the family turns out to be allergic, 25% of such families choose to keep their cat. There are possible ways to help minimize cat allergen exposure in the home that families can try, although studies suggest they may not be very effective. These include:
Keep the bedroom a feline-free zone. Keep the cat out of your child's bedroom so she has a more allergen-safe zone, which is especially important when she sleeps. If you have forced-air heating and cooling in your home, the central systems should have a filter.
Bathe your cat often. Bathing your cat at least once a week may help reduce cat allergens, but there is conflicting research about how effective this is. And there's no evidence that giving cats a bath does enough to improve allergy or asthma symptoms for those sensitive to its allergens.
Clean regularly. Sweep, mop, and vacuum the floors regularly. Use a HEPA filter for the vacuum and central heating and air conditioning systems to help reduce allergen particles. Clean furniture regularly, too, especially upholstered fabric that's more likely than surfaces such as wood, vinyl or leather to trap allergens. Consider replacing carpeting with wood, tile or linoleum floors, which are easier to keep clean. Make sure someone (other than your child with allergies) keeps the litter box clean.
Remember hand hygiene. Teach your child not to touch her face when playing with or petting the cat, and to wash her hands right afterward.
Worth a shot? In some cases, when exposure to cats can't be avoided, your pediatrician may recommend seeing a board-certified allergist to discuss immunotherapy or allergy shots. These shots contain small amounts of the cat allergens that triggers your child's allergy and, over time, might help her body become less sensitive to it but doesn't work for everybody.
Medications. Allergy medications such as antihistamines and nasal corticosteroid sprays may help but can't always beat out exposure to cat allergens day after day. The fact is, children with asthma who are allergic to cats likely will need to be on higher doses of asthma medications than they would be without a cat in the home.
Some research suggests young children who live with cats may be less likely to develop asthma and allergies later. But if your child already has asthma and has a positive cat allergy test, getting a cat will likely make his or her symptoms worse.
Unfortunately, taking steps to reduce allergen exposure in the home has not been found to be very effective. It might be a good idea to contact your local animal shelter or rescue organization to see if they let families foster pets before deciding to adopt. Even then, cat allergens likely will remain in the home for months even after a cat has lived there.
About Dr. Fuld
Gilbert L. Fuld, MD, FAAP, is a pediatrician in Keene, New Hampshire who is board-certified by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Board of Allergy and Immunology Allergy & Immunology. He is a former chair of the AAP Council on Communications and Media.
About Dr. Matsui
Elizabeth C. Matsui, MD, FAAP, is a professor of pediatrics and environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and its Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her research focuses on examining the impact of allergen exposure on allergic disease. Within the American Academy of Pediatrics, she chairs the Section on Allergy and Immunology.