Cats are the best. But should you keep a cat if you’re allergic to them? Can allergies get worse over time, and how can you keep exposure to allergens to a minimum if you do choose to keep one?
Should you have a cat if you’re allergic? You can if you want, although long-term exposure to allergens can cause deeper health issues. Talk with your doctor if you plan on having a cat when you’re allergic. To minimize your exposure to allergens pick a cat that produces few of them, like a Bengal or a Cornish Rex. Designate your bedroom a cat-free zone so you can sleep well, groom your cat frequently outside so that its hair and dander don’t spread indoors, hoover/clean your house regularly, encourage air flow through your home, and take anti-allergen medication. If your reactions are too severe, visit a friend who has a cat or go to a cat cafe.
The guide below will first look at what goes into the choice of keeping a cat if you’re allergic—and whose choice it ultimately is. We’ll also cover what triggers allergies if you’re allergic to cats, and all sorts of tips on how to minimize your exposure to allergens if you choose to keep one.
Should You Have a Cat If You’re Allergic?
We’re not ashamed to say that we think that cats are the best pets out there! They have an obvious charm, can calm a person down, and can provide you with companionship like no other pet can. It’s little wonder, then, that you might want to have a cat even if you’re allergic to them.
Ultimately, any decision relating to your health is yours and yours alone to make. And if you do choose to keep cats despite being allergic, you would be far from alone, as there’s a fairly big community of people who do just that. The problem is if you have a family you live with, especially if one or more of them is allergic to—in that case it’s everybody’s decision.
Can Cat Allergies Get Worse (Or Have Complications?)
Something to note when you make your decision is that allergies can randomly get worse. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to this, but sometimes an allergy that has been the same for years can suddenly become much more serious than before. There’s also the real issue of allergens building up in your home over time, getting caught in your soft furnishings and acting like a slow-release air freshener—but one that makes your eyes itchy and your throat close up. There’s also the fact that allergies can exacerbate asthma if that’s a problem you have.
As such, don’t assume that just because your allergy is mild now, that it always will be. Talk to your doctor about these things so that you can come to an informed decision.
What Triggers Your Allergies If You’re Allergic to Cats?
The process involved in having a cat allergy is surprisingly complex…!
The first thing to note is that there are lots of different things you can be allergic to. There are, in total, eight different allergens that cats produce which have been proven to cause allergies in people. The most common is called Fel d 1, while the others are called Fel d 2, Fel d 3 and so on up to Fel d 8. Fel d 1 accounts for around 96% of cat allergies.
Beyond that, there are convoluted steps that the allergens take to actually get into your system. These allergens are found in your cat’s bodily fluids, like its spit and urine. But they get into your system by first being on your cat’s fur, then floating around the room as dander, which is dead skin. You can also have an adverse reaction to your cat’s shed hairs.
Being aware of all this means you can take steps to control the problem. So if you are going to do that despite the impact on your health, how can you have as good an experience as possible? How do you minimize the effects of a cat allergy so that you can comfortably keep a cat despite being allergic?
1) Always Take Your Health Seriously
It might not be fashionable to say since healthcare is so expensive, but if you’re going to take a choice regarding your pets that could affect your health, you ought to talk to a doctor first. There are several reasons why.
One is that the body can react in unexpected ways if you continually expose yourself to an allergen. You could experience severe health effects from repeated/long-term exposure, even if you normally don’t react that badly. The allergic reaction occurs because your body thinks it’s under attack, and even though the science behind allergies isn’t as clear as it could be, that’s obviously not a good thing.
Another reason is that there are several different allergens which cats produce. By finding out precisely which allergen you’re allergic to, you can pick a cat breed that produces next to none of that specific allergen. That isn’t something you can figure out on your own, and you’ll need your doctor’s help.
2) Cat Breeds for People with Allergies
The first thing you should know is that all cats produce Fel d 1. That includes breeds which are called ‘hypoallergenic’. This means that you can’t avoid the problem completely, aside from, of course, if you don’t have a cat.
What you can do, though, is pick a cat breed that sheds very little and doesn’t produce a lot of dander. Examples of breeds like this include:
- Bengal cats. These cats have short fur, so don’t shed as much hair as others. They’re also thought to produce less Fel d 1 than average among cat breeds.
- Cornish/Devon rex. These cats have short fur too, but in addition, their fur is curly.
- Sphynx cats. These cats have next-to-no fur, so if cat fur is your bugbear, these are the cats for you. They do still have some fur, though—just nowhere near as much as other cats.
Try spending time around different cat breeds to see if there’s one that doesn’t set your allergies off. There are lots of different cat allergens you can react to, and you may find that one unlikely breed is the best for you.
3) Create a Cat-Free Zone
On top of picking the right cat, you can take steps to make your house more comfortable for yourself when you bring that cat home. The best way to do this is to set up a cat-free zone somewhere in your home. This could be your bedroom, a pair of rooms like your bedroom and your bathroom, or could be a whole floor of your house e.g. the attic or the upstairs rooms.
The idea is a simple one: you give yourself somewhere to retreat to when your allergies get bad. Whatever setup you pick, one room should always be your bedroom; that’s because it would be a nightmare having to sleep with your allergies flaring up. And since you spend so much time in bed each day—and that’s nothing personal, we all do—those eight hours (or however many you get) give your body time to recover. Of course it’s sad that you don’t get to curl up with your cat in bed, but this will make a big difference.
There are a few ways of doing this. One is to have a lock on your door, be that the door to your bedroom or the door to the upstairs. You could consider putting cat flaps into the doors the cat is allowed through in the house, but none in the doors it isn’t allowed through. Just be careful not to accidentally leave your bedroom door open during the day.
4) Groom Your Cat Frequently… And Do It Outside!
So, cat allergies are spread through dander and hair. Control the dander and hair, and you control, in large part, the allergy. One way of doing that is by picking a cat breed that doesn’t produce much dander or hair (or the allergens that coat them)—and we’ve done that in Step 2.
But all cats produce at least some dander/hair that you could have a reaction to. No cat is entirely hypoallergenic. So whatever cat breed you picked, you should groom them frequently to stop them from causing a serious reaction. By grooming your cat manually, you get all the hair and dander in one place—on the brush—and put it straight in the bin. This stops the hair and dander from floating through the air, landing on all of your surfaces, and giving you a reaction.
But grooming your cat like anybody else would is a bad idea. That’s because it’s unavoidable that small amounts of hair/dander will get in the air as you do. As such, grooming your cat outside if possible is best. This means that any loose hairs and dander might float in the air around you, but when you head back inside, you won’t be affected. Other tips for grooming your cat and experiencing a minimal reaction include:
- Changing your clothes and putting them in the wash immediately. There’s probably a bunch of hair on your clothes, so changing and washing them stops them from affecting you.
- Wear goggles and a face mask as you groom your cat. This stops any allergens from getting to sensitive areas that are easily affected by them.
- Wear rubber gloves so that you don’t get too many allergens on your hands. This will help you avoid contact dermatitis. You may be able to stroke your cat without such a reaction, but all of the allergens will be conglomerated on the brush. Wearing rubber gloves and putting them in the wash afterwards stops that.
Alternatively, you could consider having somebody else groom the cat for you. That could be a family member or a partner, or you could take your cat to a groomer.
5) Clean Your House Regularly
You can also look at ways of dealing with the symptoms of your allergy to make them more manageable.
The best by far is to keep your house clean. Part of the reason for this is that if you’re allergic to cats, then it’s possible if not likely that you’re allergic to other things too, like dust mites. Let’s take a look at a few ways you can keep your house as allergen-free as possible:
- Get rid of soft furnishings. These can hold onto allergens for a long period, so much so that the allergens build up over time. What might start as a manageable allergy can thereby get out of control. If you get rid of as many cushions, pillows, curtains, rugs and so on as possible then there will be nothing to hold onto the allergens.
- Replace your carpets. This is, of course, a big step. But carpets hold onto allergens in the same way as soft furnishings do. If you can replace them and have hard floors instead, this will stop both cat allergens and dust mites from building up.
- Get leather furniture, or at least non-fabric furniture. These don’t hold onto allergens, or at least as many allergens.
- Vacuum regularly. Getting rid of as much dander and hair as possible from your environment will mean you don’t react to it as strongly. Always use an allergen-proof vacuum bag, otherwise you’re blowing as many allergens around your home as you’re sucking up.
- Get rid of any heavily scented things from your home. Air fresheners and pot pourri can exacerbate the symptoms of allergic reaction, so should be removed. Everyone who’s allergic knows the one or two things that really make their allergies worse—so don’t have any of them in your house!
You should find that cleaning alone makes owning a cat much more manageable.
As a special note, you should clean your cat’s litter box frequently and thoroughly. Cats give off allergens in their urine as well as their dander, so the longer you leave their pee lying around, the more allergens it will give off. This is as easy as emptying the litter box into the bin soon after it’s used. You should also keep the litter tray somewhere that you won’t encounter it constantly to minimize your exposure to it.
6) Wash Your Hands After Stroking Your Cat
It has always been good practise to wash your hands after handling, stroking or even just touching your pets. While cats are good at grooming themselves, the act of grooming does spread bacteria through your cat’s coat. That’s because your cat’s tongue is covered in bacteria.
But besides that, this is even better advice for a person with an allergy. When you pet your cat you pick up small amounts of the allergen that causes your reaction. You may then touch your face and get the allergen into your eyes, causing the itchy feeling that almost defines allergies like these. If you’re going to have a cat, though, what’s the point if you can’t pet it, pick it up, and squash your face against it?!
You can at least partially stop your negative reactions by washing your hands after petting your cat. You can literally wash away the allergens so that they aren’t on your hands any more. Washing with warm soapy water is enough, and if you wash your hands for thirty seconds, that should be more than long enough.
7) Encourage Air Flow
It stands to reason that the more allergens you come into contact with, the worse your reaction will be. While it is possible to have a reaction to a tiny amount of allergenic material, it’s still true that the more allergenic material there is, the worse that reaction will be.
There are a few ways that you can come into contact with lots of allergens all at once. One is to encounter lots of different allergens all in one space (dust mites, cat dander, etc.) Another is to stumble into a situation where there are lots and lots of the kind of allergens you react to (e.g. if you were taken blindfolded to a cat shelter!) But the third way, and the one that’s relevant here, is if you allow the allergens to build up over time. That means one cat, even one that doesn’t produce many allergens, can cause severe reactions if those allergens have built up in its coat or environment.
One great way to avoid this happening is regular cleaning, as described above. But unless you vacuum every day and get rid of all your soft furnishings, allergens will still build up over time. You can stop this by encouraging air flow in your home. Open all your windows and encourage a through draft, and turn on all the ceiling fans in your home—then sit in your yard and relax for a while. This will kick up lots of the remaining allergens and get rid of them.
You can also do this at ‘pressure points’ in time, like after you groom your cat, or after your cat got into your bedroom by accident. It’s especially effective if you do it soon after the allergens are introduced. You should also try to get fresh air for yourself every once in a while by taking a walk or sitting outside.
8) Medicate with Anti-Allergy Medication
You also have the option of using medication to manage the symptoms of your allergy: the itchy eyes, the contact dermatitis and the difficulty breathing.
You’ll already be familiar with over-the-counter medication, but if you didn’t know, there are also higher strength prescription medications available. There are natural remedies, too, if you’re into that sort of thing—and there are immunotherapy allergy shots available as well. In other words, there’s no shortage of medication for you to choose from, and you can pick whichever is most convenient for you, or the one that works the best.
You should alsokeep an Epipen at home even if your allergy isn’t serious now. Allergies can suddenly get worse for what seems like no reason, so if you want to keep a cat, you have to account for that.
9) Use a HEPA Air Filter
HEPA air filters are a kind of air filter that can take both allergens and bacteria from the air. HEPA itself stands for ‘high-efficiency particulate air’, meaning that HEPA filters clean air by removing tiny impurities from it. Portable air purifiers typically use HEPA filters to clean the air in just one room; or, you can install a system around your home that will clean the air of your home for you.
The idea is that the filter will actively keep air circulating in your home. As it takes in air, it filters it before moving it on. So any allergens that are in the air will be sucked up and held onto before they can settle.
You will have to change these filters every once in a while as they get clogged up. But by wearing a face mask and goggles and changing them outside, and/or having somebody else do it for you, you can minimize the effect that doing so has on you.
10) Pick Another Pet
You could also pick another kind of pet. Cats aren’t the only fun pet there is to have, and having an allergy to cats doesn’t mean you’re allergic to them all. You can choose from dogs, rodent pets, birds, reptiles and many more pets that all prove fun and rewarding to keep.
If you absolutely need to spend time with cats, then consider befriending somebody who has one! That way you can experience most of the joys that cats bring, without any of the hassle of feeding them, taking them to the vet, or having horrible allergic reactions every time you come home. Alternatively, you could try and convince a family member to get a cat for the same reason.
Failing that, you could visit a ‘cat cafe’. If you’ve never heard of these, they are like normal cafes—with cake, coffee and tea—but also with cats. The walls will be lined with ramps and ledges for the cats to walk on, the corners stuffed with big cat bunk beds, and there will always be a selection of toys you can play with the cats with. Be warned: there are normally a lot of cats in each cat cafe, so you’re likely to have a bad reaction. But this at least would mean you don’t have a continual reaction at home, instead only letting your body think it’s under attack for a brief half an hour window!