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What Doctors Know: Don’t let your cat get your dander up

The prevalence of asthma and allergic rhinitis – nose and throat allergies – has increased significantly during the past 40 years. Current data suggests that, in the U.S., approximately 10 percent of children have asthma.

Childhood asthma is strongly associated with sensitivity to animal allergens, substances that cause allergy symptoms in people sensitive to a particular allergen. Sensitivity to cat and dog allergens is prevalent in up to 67 percent of all asthmatic children.

What distinguishes animal allergen exposure from other indoor allergen exposure is high exposure levels and the number of places animal allergen is found. Cat and dog allergens are found in homes, schools, offices and public buildings where the allergens are passively transported by pet owners. The levels of exposure in these environments can cause both sensitization (production of allergic antibody) and allergic symptoms in atopic (allergic) people.

Animal allergens are found in animal tissue, hair, feathers, saliva, urine and dander. Dander is the word for dead skin that is shed constantly by dogs and cats. Cat dander is especially associated with allergies.

The major allergen responsible for cat allergies in 80 percent of cat-sensitive individuals is called Fel d 1. Fel d 1 is produced primarily in cat saliva and is also found in cat dander. Cats show significant individual variation in its production, with male cats generally producing greater amounts of allergen than females.

In fact, cat allergens are widely distributed throughout cat owner’s homes, and surprisingly, they accumulate at significant levels in houses that do not even contain pets.

Paradoxically, some studies demonstrate that children raised in a house with a cat are less likely to become allergic, as well as less likely to develop asthma. The highest exposure to cat allergen may decrease the production of allergic antibodies and trigger a type of tolerance.

It could be the reason that in places like New Zealand, where 78 percent of the population owns a cat, the prevalence of cat allergies is as low as 10 percent. However, several factors may contribute to the relationship between cat exposure and allergic reaction.

Ease Indoor Cat Dander

There are still no convincing studies addressing the clinical benefit of environmental control measures for animal allergens. It’s widely accepted that any asthmatic patient who’s known to be cat-sensitive and whose asthma is believed to be related to cat dander allergy, should remove the cat from the home. The following indoor environmental measures may have a modest benefit for those reluctant or unwilling to remove the cat from the house:

• Install air cleaners, especially in the bedroom.

• Remove carpeting, especially in the bedroom.

• Replace mattress and pillow covers.

• Bathe your cat at least twice a week.

Many well-controlled studies have demonstrated that over the long term, Allergen Immunotherapy is the only highly effective available treatment for cat dander allergy.

Cat immunotherapy significantly reduces the symptoms of cat allergies by administering gradually increasing doses of allergens that stimulate the patient’s own immune system. These patients then become resistant to future allergic symptoms and reactions.

Cat immunotherapy is safe and highly effective for allergic rhinitis, allergic conjunctivitis and allergic asthma secondary to cat dander.

See a board-certified allergist and immunologist and ask about starting an effective therapy for cat dander allergy today.

Dr. Vicki Lyons is a board-certified and fellowship-trained allergist and immunologist who practices in Ogden, Utah.