The Truth About “Hypoallergenic” Cats—and What to Do if Your Allergies Are Acting Up, According to an Expert

updated Dec 9, 2020
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Gray cat relaxing on bed.Russian blue cat at cozy home interior. Pet care, friend of human.

There’s a lot to love about having a pet, but if you have allergies, the frustrations can outweigh the benefits. Take cats, for instance: The felines have been scientifically proven to boost your mood by helping you establish a routine, lowering your hypertension, and giving you unconditional love. They’re also cute and quirky, and do all sorts of funny things

If months of isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic has made you, like me, look into getting a cat in spite of allergies, you’re not alone. That’s how I wound up with Frankie, a sweet 2-year-old Russian Blue, whom I decided to foster because I heard the breed is more hypoallergenic than others. But is adopting an animal you’re allergic to ever a good idea? And are so-called “hypoallergenic” cats actually as good as they sound?

According to Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified applied animal behaviorist, a postdoctoral veterinary fellow at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis, and resident cat expert for Smalls cat food, adjusting your home for a pet may not be the most comfortable, but it can be done if your allergies aren’t too severe. She talked to Apartment Therapy about the myth of “hypoallergenic” animals, as well as steps you can take to ease the symptoms associated with cat dander.

If you’re worried about your own allergies, it’s important to talk to your doctor or general health practitioner before introducing an animal into your home. It’s also worth being upfront with the foster or adoption agency about your allergies so you can troubleshoot together. While they might be reluctant to place an animal with you given the potential of rehoming the animal later, they’re working with the animal’s best needs in mind.

Do hypoallergenic cats actually exist? 

The short answer? Not really. “There is no evidence that there is such a thing as a hypoallergenic cat,” Dr. Delgado told Apartment Therapy. “What people are responding to is the presence of a protein Fel d1 and there is no selective breeding of cats based on the level of that protein in their saliva.” While there is evidence that Russian Blue cats produce less glycoprotein Fel d 1, which is a trigger for cat allergies, their “hypoallergenic” status simply means they produce fewer allergens than other breeds

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America reports that 3 in 10 people in the United States have allergic reactions to cats and dogs but cat allergies are about twice as common as allergies to dogs. This has to do with the fact that cats groom themselves regularly, while dogs do not: “People with allergies are responding to a protein in cats’ saliva, and since cats groom themselves so much, the protein gets on their fur and dander,” Dr. Delgado explains. 

Can people with cat allergies allergy-proof their home? 

While there are things people can do to reduce allergies, there’s no guarantee you can fully allergy-proof your home. Here’s what Delgado recommends:

Investing in air filters with HEPA filtration might help

“The standard recommendations are to get good quality HEPA filters for areas where humans/cats spend a lot of time,” Delgado says. “It can also be helpful for owners to vacuum frequently, and change their and their cats’ bedding often.” Air purifiers work by removing allergens and bacteria from the air, and Delgado suggests placing them in rooms where your cat spends most of its time.

Talk to your vet about putting your cat on a special diet

While certain cat food brands promise to reduce the levels of Fel-d1 in your cat’s saliva, Delgado says the only research-backed product he is aware of at present is Purina Pro Plan’s Liveclear line. “The technology to reduce Fel d1 production in cats is relatively new,” she notes, adding that she “would expect we will see new therapeutics related to this in the future.” My foster cat’s adoption center suggested I add flaxseed oil to her diet to nourish her skin and coat, and bee pollen to mine, to help with allergies

The fabrics in your home might make the problem more pronounced

Minimizing carpet, rugs and hanging fabrics like drapes can reduce how much hair and dander hangs around your home, Delgado tells Apartment Therapy. If you’d rather not launder your linens every day, you can look into fabrics that aren’t as porous: Vinyl or leather couches may be easier to clean and prevent the trapping of fur compared to fabrics.

Be sure to groom your cat regularly

“Grooming with a good brush that the cat likes can reduce shedding of fur,” Delgado says. “This may overall reduce the amount of Fel d1 that is in the environment.” However, it may be best for someone without allergies to take on this task if possible, as the act of brushing may briefly increase the amount of dander in the air. If you live alone or the cat is your responsibility, I have found it helpful to wear a mask while grooming and cleaning my cat’s litter. 

As for the tools themselves, Amazon reviewers love the Furminator, a proprietary brush that specifically targets your pet’s undercoat. As one user put it, they “started brushing one of my cats last night for about 20 minutes and removed a mound of fur that could be used to create another cat off of her. At no point did she seem uncomfortable, giving me the ‘stop’ signs like pawing at the brush or walking away.” That’s an endorsement if I’ve ever heard one. 

Do allergy shots really work?

Delgado notes that allergy shots—which are a series of treatments that aim to provide long term relief—work for many people. “It’s always a good idea to speak to your doctor about ways to reduce allergic reactions,” she says. But shots can be costly, might require constant administration, and there’s no guarantee they will eradicate all of your allergy symptoms (According to Healthline, the shots can cost up to $1,000 a year without insurance.) There is some good news on the horizon: A vaccine may be in development thanks to a Switzerland-based company that published the results of vaccine tests which immunize cats from their own allergen in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in 2019.

If your allergies are too intense—asthma, for example, can be life-threatening—it may be time to rehome your cat. While pets are resilient and it may be immensely sad to say goodbye to your furry friend, moving them around isn’t ideal and it’s important to do everything you can to find them a loving home. “Pets give us so much, so we should do our best to find them a loving home if we aren’t able to keep them,” Joseph Turk, D.V.M, told SELF. In these instances, it is helpful to reach out to a local animal rescue—and especially the rescue service from where you adopted your cat—as well as organizations like the Humane Society for support.