Cats for people with allergies

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on January 12, 2014

From The News Desk

Like about 10 percent of the American population, I'm allergic to cats. Just a few minutes in the company of a common tabby and my eyes swell shut and I get so congested I wheeze like an asthmatic three-pack-a-day smoker sprinting after a taxi. Unlike dogs such as poodles and Portuguese water dogs, which have hair and not fur, there's no such thing as a hypoallergenic cat, not even the (virtually) hairless Sphynx. Besides, who wants their cat to look like a cross between Bruce Willis and Yoda?

For someone like me, you might think adopting a feline would be out of the question. Nevertheless, recently my wife, kids and I got one. This wasn't a decision we took lightly. We had been discussing it for more than two years, and even took our kids to a cat show in New Jersey, which would have made a great mockumentary. What I learned through due diligence (OK, basic googling and interviewing breeders) is that when it comes to allergies, the breed can make all the difference.

Now, there's little scientific evidence to support the idea that some cat breeds are better for asthmatics and allergy sufferers than others. Yet a growing number have turned to Siberians and Maine Coons, something that breeders have become hip to. Still, they have to be careful what the say on their websites, just in case the Federal Drug Administration or Federal Trade Commission comes after them for making unsubstantiated claims.

It reminds me, somewhat, of the gluten-free craze. Suddenly all manner of people complain of wheat allergies while medical science counters that tiny percentage of the population is gluten intolerant and suffer from Celiac disease. As someone who has frequented allergists' offices, I can tell you that I am allergic to wheat (or maybe gluten) even if it doesn't show up on allergy tests. Eat enough of a cupcake or baguette and my bronchial tubes seize up. I don't have celiac disease. Yet medical science claims I don't have a wheat allergy.

With cat allergies, as any veterinarian could tell you, fur isn't the problem. It's the chemical reaction between the saliva and fur from the cat grooming himself that is. As Siberian Research, "a not-for-profit for the Siberian Cat," describes it:

Feline allergen is a very small glycoprotein created in the salivary (saliva), lacrimal (tears), sebaceous (skin), and perianal glands. Salivary Fel d1 becomes airborne during grooming, sebaceous Fel d1 tends to be distributed across the fur, with the highest levels being found near the skin. Perianal glands secrete the allergen onto the feces. The highest concentration of Fel d1 is found in the perianal glands.

Feline allergen (Fel d1) is found only in cats and accounts for up to 60 percent of cat allergies. Typical reactions to the allergen vary, but includes symptoms ranging from mild runny nose and itchy eyes, to severe reactions such as swollen eyes, hives or difficulty breathing. Individuals allergic to cats and not other animals are usually allergic only to Fel d1. The allergen is very stabile, and can remain in a home for six months after removal of the cat. Not every Siberian has low levels of allergens; it depends on the cat. So the only way I could be sure that I wouldn't be allergic would be to hobnob with some Siberians or Maine Coons.

Fortunately my wife located a Siberian cat breeder in Brooklyn called NY Cattery and in August we, along with our daughters, drove to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn (near Coney Island). The word "breeder" conjured an image in my mind of a farm with cats roaming freely. Instead Alex, the Russian-born man who runs the operation with his mother, invited us into his mother's smallish Brooklyn apartment and ushered us into the living room where a vinyl turquoise-colored couch had been scratched to shreds. The only other furniture was a coffee table, a couple of chairs, and cat contraptions -- but no cats to be seen.

After some chit chat, which was really them checking us out to be sure we would be responsible owners, I reminded Alex about my allergies. If it weren't for them, we would have simply gone to the Humane Society and adopted a cat. Otherwise, it would never have occurred to us to go to a breeder. Alex assured us that he and his mother have never had a Siberian returned because of an owner's allergies. But there's a simple test. He advised us to stick around for an hour to see how I responded.

That sounded fine to me. I expected he or his mother to fetch a cuddling, purring Siberian and have me hold it for a while. Instead Alex and his mother started opening doors and cats streamed into the room. Big cats, small cats, with different markings and colors. In all, I counted 30 of them. My children were giggling as the cats jumped on cat towers, rolled on the floor, and rubbed against their ankles. I checked the time on my iPhone. If these were tabbies I'd last five minutes before needing to call 911.

Fifteen minutes went by, then 30, an hour, and suffice to say, I didn't suffer an allergic reaction. During the cats' rambunctious play we picked out a three-month-old kitten, and after paying the fee (he was 20 percent off, a bargain) we took him home and named him Satchmo (after Louis Armstrong). Four-and-a-half months later and I still haven't taken allergy meds, and I can assure you that Satchmo has all the requisite fur - in fact, more fur than your usual feline, since he's a Siberian.

There's a lesson in all this. Medical science doesn't have all the answers and though plenty of hucksters online and off- that will try to sell you a new weight loss drug or magical pill to make you more energetic or smarter, sometimes -- as with my wheat allergies that doctors claim can't exist -- what sounds like hucksterism is actually good, common sense. I'm proof that cat allergy suffers can happily co-exist with Siberians, although that may not be true for everybody.

But don't take my word for it: the only way to know for sure would be to try it out for yourself.

As for Satchmo, he's climbed up on a shelf in our living room and lounging in a large salad bowl. For us, he's the ideal family cat -- friendly, affectionate, loves to play (he's particularly enamored with a toy called "Cat Dancer") and very social whenever anyone comes to visit.

Best of all, I can breathe. Satchmo may not be completely hypoallergenic, but he's close enough for me.

Photo of Satchmo, by Adam Penenberg.