One of my more memorable patients was a woman who had loved animals her whole life. In fact, she loved them so much that she decided to make them her livelihood. She opened a pet sitting business, and everything was progressing perfectly until she discovered that she had pet allergies.
She was shocked! She had never had any kind of reaction to pets in her youth, and she certainly didn’t expect them now that she owned several cats and dogs of her own and had taken on many pet clients.
Pet allergies are the bane of animal lovers, and, unfortunately, they are quite common. Roughly 10percent of people have pet allergies, and that number increases to 30% among those who have allergies to other triggers (such as dust, mold, pollen, etc.) Cat allergies are twice as common as dog allergies.
Fortunately, researchers are making ongoing strides to help manage pet allergies. A study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in April showcased one of the newest developments: a vaccine to minimize allergies to cats known as HypoCatTM.
To understand how HypoCat works, it’s important to know about Fel d 1—a protein produced by cats that triggers reactions in humans. You can blame Fel d 1 on the itchy eyes, runny nose, and wheezing that you experience when you cuddle a kitty.
HypoPet AG, a Switzerland-based company, has figured out a way to trigger the production of antibodies through their HypoCat vaccine. The antibodies can bind to these pesky Fel d 1 proteins and neutralize their effects on humans. Researchers found that the saliva and tears of felines vaccinated by HypoCat had significantly less Feld d 1 in them.
The vaccine is a win-win. It allows humans to tolerate the cats they love and to minimize their risk of developing chronic diseases, such as asthma, that could be triggered by cats. It also allows cats to stay in households rather than be sent to animal shelters.
Hypo Pet AG was founded in 2013 by the University of Zürich Switzerland and funded by grants from the Swiss government. It has partnered with a British company to bring new veterinary medicines, including HypoCat, to consumers.
The vaccine isn’t ready yet. In fact, it could be years before testing is complete and the drug is released, but it’s exciting to know that there is hope on the horizon for allergic cat owners.
In the meantime…
While you’re anxiously awaiting the release of HypoCat, there are some options for managing your pet allergies.
Choose your pet carefully. Some animals tend to be less allergenic than others. For dogs, the bichon frise, miniature schnauzer, and poodle are all top picks for allergy sufferers because they tend to shed less. Oriental shorthairs and Cornish rex are popular options for cats for the same reason, and the sphynx is fully hairless. Remember, though, it’s not the animal’s hair that causes allergies—it’s the proteins found in their saliva and dander (dead skin flakes). So while less hair to shed may mean that less of these secretions enter your environment, every animal produces the proteins that can trigger allergies.
Also, don’t run right out and buy a pet based on other people’s recommendations alone. Researchers caution that even though some breeds seem to be less allergenic, your tolerance for different pets has much more to do with your individual allergic sensitivity. That’s why some people may not have allergic reactions to certain breeds and others will.
And finally, pay attention to these factors when you consider purchasing a pet:
- Size: Bigger animals have more surface area for proteins to gather on, and they may also create more of the secretions that contain allergenic proteins than smaller animals do.
- Outdoor vs. indoor: Animals who spend a lot of time outdoors may pick up pollen in their fur and bring them inside.
Manage your environment: Though you can’t stop your pet from creating the proteins that cause your allergies, you can try to minimize your contact with those proteins. This can be done by:
- Bathing your pet regularly.
- Creating pet-friendly zones in your home. Limit your pet to one or two rooms in your house to confine their fur, dander, etc.
- Clean and vacuum your home regularly, and use high-efficiency particulate air filters (HEPA).
Talk to your doctor about desensitization therapy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with pet dander or fur or saliva or anything else. The real problem comes from the way your body reacts to those elements. Rather than just ignoring them (as it should), it mistakes them for harmful invaders—like germs or bacteria. It then releases chemicals into the body to fight them off. Those chemicals trigger allergic reactions, such as swollen, itchy eyes, swollen nasal passages, and inflamed airways (which can lead to wheezing and asthma).
So one lasting solution is to change the way your body reacts to pet allergens through desensitization therapy. This involves exposing your body to small amounts of pet-produced proteins, either through allergy shots (subcutaneous immunotherapy) or under-the-tongue allergy drops for cat or dog allergies (sublingual immunotherapy). The concentration of the allergens starts very small and gradually increases, teaching your immune system to tolerate pets instead of overreacting to them.
So fortunately, allergies and pets can co-exist. Many people swear by desensitization therapy to rid them of their animal allergies. In fact, the patient I mentioned at the start of this article thrived on the treatment and was able to continue her pet-sitting business without a problem. And beyond desensitization, the promise of the HypoCat vaccine in the future for cats (and maybe dogs down the line) will be icing on the cake.