Saturday, July 22, 2006

Cats and allergies

Sorry for the radio silence, folks, but I've been busy fixing the hut, taking the car out for a short spin or two a day, and buying all kinds of crazy stuff online (Victorian glass doorknobs, hotel silver, beaded shoes, and books books books). I've also been getting back on a regular research schedule, which has helped to lessen my academic anxiety--even if I'm still having dreams about running into my advisor.

But now I need some advice from the internets:

I've wanted a cat for years, and I'm strongly considering getting one (although perhaps not until after my first paycheque, which I'll receive in, oh, let's see. . . two months). However, I'm mildly to moderately allergic to cats--my usual symptoms are watery eyes and head congestion, although occasionally I'll get hive-like blotches when I wash my face. It seems to depend on the cat: my parents now have a cat (which isn't allowed in the room that I sleep in), and as long as I wash my hands regularly I have virtually no allergic reaction to her. With other cats, though, I'll sometimes start sneezing after just an hour or two in their presence.

So what I'm wondering is, is it true that actually living with a cat builds up one's resistance to allergens? And does it seem likely that my symptoms would be kept sufficiently in check by over-the-counter decongestants/antihistamines and a thorough weekly vaccuming? Are there other strategies or products I could investigate? Or is it just not worth the hassle?

Thoughts from the cat fanciers appreciated. . .

17 comments:

Tiruncula said...

"is it true that actually living with a cat builds up one's resistance to allergens?"

Unfortunately, no, or not necessarily. I grew up with cats and had only mild allergies. In 1990, I adopted two cat brothers, and in 1995, shortly after moving with them to a smallish apartment in a northern city where we were indoors together a lot, I had a serious asthma attack for the first time ever. I finally had allergy testing and tested off the scale for cats. I would never get rid of Very Old Cat because of my allergies, but he is going to have to be the Last Cat. If you already have allergies, I have to say I'd consider very, very carefully before committing to a cat, especially now that cats can routinely live 18-20 years. That sounds pretty hard-hearted, coming from a crazed pet-lover who builds her life around making the beasties happy, but it's not just a major impairment to my health: once cat hair is in the house and on the furniture, it's practically impossible to eradicate it, and my niece, who has much worse allergies than I do, can't even come over for the afternoon.

What Now? said...

It makes me so sad to say this, since I adore cats and hope always to live with them -- and would like for you to have the same pleasure, of course! -- but I think that Tiruncula is right. You might be fine, of course, but you could also wind up very attached to an animal that makes you wheeze and get splotchy and have to think about things like when you last washed your hands, which isn't such a good thing.

G-Fav said...

I don't know. I can attest to having a cat being a "good thing," even though I was anti-cat pre-Eddie.

But can I tease you about saying "paycheque"?

g

medieval woman said...

Just a thought - I've heard that long-haired kitties are easier on allergies b/c the dander isn't shed as easily - I think that's what causes the allergies more than the hair. But it might depend on the cat - good luck!

New Kid on the Hallway said...

The previous commenters are probably more sensible than I am about this, but I have three cats, and I have fairly significant cat allergies, and I deal fine. (We didn't plan on having three, it just happened...) It is true that you don't necessarily built up resistance - in fact, one cause of allergies is precisely exposure to the allergen (for instance, this is why little kids aren't supposed to have peanut butter until a certain age, so that they don't develop a lethal PB allergy).

I'm not sure if it's a built-up resistance or what, but I do find that I react less to mine than to other people's. That might just be fortuitous (specific kinds of cat hair, for instance - I know I react differently to different kinds of dog hair, too). I have asthma, and am also allergic to a million other things, so I take quite a lot of medication (4 different kinds!), and with the medication, I'm absolutely fine (I lived unmedicated for years, and went through boxes and boxes of kleenex, because I didn't realize quite how bad it was). One of the meds is Claritin, which you can get over the counter now, and I find it's wonderful. I do have to avoid doing things like rubbing my eyes after I've been playing with my kitties, and I do tend to react with itchy welts to any (accidental) scratches, but for me, it's worth it. If it's your only allergy, and you don't have asthmatic tendencies, I'd say it's definitely worth trying, though if there's some way that you can test-drive a cat for a period of time, that's probably best.

As for other strategies - there's always immunotherapy!(Depending on your patience and your insurance...)

Oh, and if you *do* get a cat, it is VERY worth investing in a Dyson Animal vacuum cleaner, which is expensive but SO GOOD at getting up cat hair/dander, and does NOT blow it around! Though it is very true that cat dander is a persistent substance.

Just a question: you don't also have dog allergies, do you? A lot of people who have cats also have dogs, and I get the sneezing-in-their-presence reaction to dogs, whereas I don't to cats. If you can see an allergist, it might be worth getting tested to see what you're actually reacting to?

(Sorry to ramble, this is a subject near to my heart!)

New Kid on the Hallway said...

PS - a possible solution is to try fostering a cat for a humane society? There are a lot of animal groups that rely on the support of volunteer fosters, and while it's not very good form to foster and then immediately adopt the animal (they'd rather have you available to foster!), it's a way to see how you react to an animal. If you have a bad reaction, you can give it back to them, and if you've only had the animal in your house for a little while, I can't think you'd contaminate the house too much (especially if you don't let it in your bedroom, which is something you're definitely not supposed to with allergies, even though I, of course, do). Anyway, it can be a way to check out a cat without commitment, nad although humane societies aren't thrilled to have it treated that way, they also usually really need fosters.

(I'll shut up now...)

Flavia said...

Such good advice! I'd been thinking that I'd like to test-drive a cat, if possible--if, for example, a colleague had to give one away and didn't mind my trying it out for just a few days or a week at first--but I hadn't considered the possibility of fostering one through a humane society. Maybe pet-sitting would also be a good test for my general degree of allergic response.

I also like NK's suggestion about seeing an allergist. As far as I know I'm not allergic to dogs--and neither do I have asthma or any other known allergies--but it would probably be nice to find out in advance! (Of course, I'm currently between medical plans, but I'm anxiously awaiting my new coverage.)

Thanks again. I'll keep thinking about this one--I DO want a cat, but T and WN make excellent points. I'd really hate to commit myself to a pet that caused me ongoing physical discomfort.

Tiruncula said...

I'm encouraged by NK's experience and suggestions. Personally, I have virtually no sneezy/upper-respiratory reactions; it's all asthma - which is good, in a way, because I couldn't tolerate a regular regime of either traditional antihistamines, which make me groggy and nauseous, or Claritin, which makes my heart race and keeps me up all night. The idea of fostering is a good one, and if you have a good match and an ok reaction, you might think about adopting an older cat.

Professor B said...

Hi Flavia,

Probably out of the price range, but I wouldn't be a true geek without suggesting a technological solution to your problem: Hypoallergenic Cats

Professor B said...

After a bit of poking around, straight from the cat's mouth: Allerca Yours for only $3950, with a one-year guarantee!

Flavia said...

Hee! Prof B, you're the best. Thanks for the links and the info. Too bad I just bought a new car (and that that's the only item worth more than $1100 [the cost of my laptop] that I own).

RLM said...

Seems I'm late to this discussion, but I will just report that my sister, who has asthma and grew up with serious cat allergies, now owns two cats. She takes allergy meds daily; I don't know if it's just OTC Claritin or something prescribed. But she claims to have more allergy problems with pollen these days, especially when she visits us back East (she lives in southern California now), than with the cats. So it can definitely be done! Good luck deciding...

StyleyGeek said...

I was also going to suggest fostering and/or pet sitting for a while.

I grew up with a cat and had no problems. Three years after our cat died I discovered I was allergic to every feline I came in contact with (red, itchy eyes, swollen face, sneezing, runny nose, mild asthma).

Since then I have lived in shared houses where a flatmate had a cat twice, both for around two years. In each case, the first two months was hell, and then it was fine. I love cats enough I'm happy to make that sacrifice.

But obviously it doesn't work that way for everyone. So try before you buy :)

G-Fav said...

Holy cow! I must have been smoking cumin or something when I left that comment.

I was under the impression that a good way to reduce your exposure is washing your hands + face frequently (and avoiding touching your face otherwise). Your face-washing blotchiness is interesting.

Cat books go out of their way to explain that "people aren't allergic to cats, they're allergic to the stuff in cat spit that they lick themselves with." What good is that advice??

Have you tried stuff like Benadryl?

g

Dr. Crazy said...

I'm very late to this, but I just wanted to add that I have mild-to-moderate allergies to SOME cats, and I think at least part of the reason why I react differently to some cats than to others has to do with what the cats eat. With the Man Kitty, only if he scratches me do I have any reaction, and that's just that the scratch is itchy and red for a little bit - not horrible.

Anonymous said...

I'm highly allergic to quite a few things (cats included) so imagine my surprise when I fell for a guy who owned a cat. Even more surprising, I ended up falling for the cat, too. Allegra helped; Claritin didn't. It all just depends on which meds work for you. Good luck!

Dr. Virago said...

Very late to this, but just wanted to say that I am also allergic to cats in the way you are, but I always grow used to a cat I live with. With others' cats, I have to remember not to touch my face or neck until I've washed my hands. With my own cat, that state remains for a month (I think -- it's been awhile since I've had a new cat) and then gradually decreases until it's not a problem.

So, anecdotally speaking, *some* people can build immunities, I guess.