After the disappointing news report of a company exploiting hopeful cat lovers by selling fake "hypoallergenic" kitties at exorbitant amounts, I thought I'd share my own quest to find cats that didn't trigger my allergies... at a bargain price.
For those of you suffering from allergies to cats, I feel your pain! I had to find a home for my childhood companion, a Siamese cat named Jessica, as my allergies worsened as I became an adult. The college student she went to live with was grateful for a delightful, low-maintenance roommate to keep her company, but I felt like a failure. Maybe I just hadn't looked hard enough for an allergy medicine I could tolerate. But I felt terrible avoiding my cat knowing my eyes would start itching and swelling if I touched her. Jessica needed someone who could give her those much-deserved rubs.
I lived the next 18 years without cats thinking I was going to have to carry on in feline friendlessness. But then my 15-year-old daughter requested a cat to help her cope with her parents' divorce. Considering the alternatives that teens sometimes use as coping mechanisms, I thought this was a pretty darn good idea, but I knew I needed to proceed with caution. After all, there was a pretty good chance that this new addition to our mending family would likely be under my care when Courtney heads off to college. I needed to like the cat as well as she did and not be allergic. I didn't even know if that was possible, but for my daughter's sake, I knew we had to try.
I did some brief research on possible candidates for breeds touted as hypoallergenic, or at least less likely to cause allergic reactions. After all, if I'd successfully found dog breeds that didn't irritate me, surely there was a cat I was compatible with. It seemed inevitable that that I was going to have to shell out some serious cash for a pure-breed cat that only had a chance at being less allergenic, but there were no guarantees. I'd read that adults may register higher levels of allergens as they matured, so I needed to find an older kitty for the best results.
As a newly-single mom, it seemed prudent to go to my local shelter for a cat as their adoption fees are very reasonable. Additionally, the nominal fee included a free spay, vaccinations, and microchip. Plus, I could relate to the plight of finding oneself in unexpected life circumstances and needing love and shelter from life's storms. I think I was as nervous as some of the kitties in the enclosures when I started looking at the sheer number of cats to choose from. How could we find the right one that my daughter and I could both agree on?
Our first shelter we visited, the cats were housed in cages with wire fronts. I decided to pet cats that appeared friendly and social and then touch my face to see if I'd react. I'd wash my hands between touches. I could feel my skin start to itch with several of them. There did seem to be a big difference between cat coats. Some seemed to shed more, and some definitely shed less. Some had visible dander, while others seemed more clean. Courtney liked one kitten, but I suggested we keep looking and not be too hasty with such a big decision.
We tried a bigger shelter in a nearby city in the hopes of having a bigger selection and having more of a chance of finding a cat we could both agree on and one that I wouldn't react to. I tended to gravitate towards the longer-haired kitties knowing that, even though my mom's fluffy Sheltie wasn't considered hypoallergenic, I didn't seem to react to her. I theorized this might be due to the dander not being able to get through all that fur easily. But Courtney said, "no way" when I suggested meeting one. She gravitated towards kittens. I gently pointed out that adults were more in her price range. (It had occurred to me in a brief moment of parental brilliance that it would be good to let my daughter pay for her own cat.)
Eventually, we both agreed to meet a year-old short-haired calico in one of the counseling rooms. She was still playful enough to suit Courtney. I literally rubbed my face in her fur to see how she affected me. She even gave me a little lick so I could see how I reacted to her saliva. No itching! When Courtney said, "Mom, who needs boys?" while snuggling up to the kitty, it was a done deal! We picked her up a couple of days later after she was spayed and passed her health inspection since she had a little cold.
I don't recommend this technique in selecting a cat for everyone, particularly if you or a family member is highly allergic to cats. My allergies make me quite uncomfortable, but they are certainly not life threatening like some people's reactions are. I repeated this technique when adopting our next cat a year later when I suggested BaxterBoo needed a real Boo. Both cats even sleep with me, and I've never had a problem.
The main culprit behind cat allergies is usually attributed to the Fel d1 protein found in saliva, skin secretions and in the perianal glands. When a cat grooms herself, the proteins get into the fur, dry, then flake off and float around so they can lodge themselves in your sinuses. Most people don't realize the part about the perianal glands, so this could be a good excuse to get out of cleaning the litter box! For a lighthearted video on the subject, I bring you one of my favorite crazy cat ladies, Sarah Donner:
For those of you who are quite serious about understanding cat allergies, I have a great site for you called KittenTesting.com that is dedicated to testing kittens for their Fel d1 levels, especially Siberian cats (a breed more likely to be hypoallergenic) and educating the public about cat allergens and reducing reactions.
The Fel D1 protein is just one of many possible allergens people may react to on cats. That is why it's important to spend time with any cat you are considering before purchasing.