Your Cat’s Purrs Could Be Making You Sick. The Truth About Cat Saliva Allergies

Introduction

Cat saliva allergy, also known as cat saliva allergy or cat saliva hypersensitivity, is an allergic reaction triggered by proteins found in cat saliva and skin dander. The major allergen is a protein called Fel d 1, which is present in cat skin, anal glands, sebaceous glands, and saliva. When cats groom themselves, the saliva dries and flakes off, spreading Fel d 1 proteins into the environment. These proteins can cause an allergic reaction when inhaled or come into contact with the skin. Those with cat saliva allergy often experience symptoms like coughing, sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, and skin rashes around 15-30 minutes after exposure to cat saliva. It’s estimated that 10% of the population is allergic to cats, making it one of the most common pet allergies.

Causes

The primary cause of cat allergies in humans is a protein called Fel d 1 that is found in cat saliva. Fel d 1 is a secreted protein produced mainly in cat salivary and sebaceous glands and is a member of the major cat allergen family. It is spread by cats grooming themselves and depositing saliva on their fur. The protein is very small and light, allowing it to stay airborne and disperse easily in environments where cats live. According to a 2018 review, Fel d 1 causes IgE antibody reactions in 83.7% of children and 88-95% of adults with cat allergies [1].

Symptoms

Some of the most common symptoms of cat saliva allergies include:

Rashes – People allergic to cats may develop a red, itchy rash on their face, neck, or hands after being licked or nuzzled by a cat. The rash is often localized to the area the cat licked or touched.

Itching – Allergic reactions can cause severe itching of the skin. The itching typically starts within minutes to hours after contact with the cat and may affect the face, hands, or other exposed areas.

Swelling – Swelling is another common symptom, especially around the eyes, lips, throat, or wherever the individual had contact with the cat. The swelling is caused by an inflammatory reaction and fluid buildup under the skin.

Diagnosis

If cat allergies are suspected, an allergist can help provide a proper diagnosis through testing. The two main diagnostic tests are skin prick testing and blood tests.

Skin prick testing involves pricking the skin with a small amount of allergen extract from a cat. If a person is allergic to cats, a small hive will form at the prick site. This test is considered very accurate for diagnosing cat allergies. [1]

Blood tests measure immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to specific allergens. A positive test indicates the presence of antibodies triggered by exposure to cats. However, blood tests are less sensitive than skin prick testing. [2]

Once properly diagnosed, a physician can provide guidance on treatment and management options for cat allergies. Avoidance of cats is recommended for those with severe allergies. Medications, allergy shots, and pet hygiene can help relieve symptoms for others.

Treatment

There are several options for treating cat allergy symptoms. The most common treatments include:

Antihistamines: Antihistamines like loratadine (Claritin), cetirizine (Zyrtec), or fexofenadine (Allegra) can help relieve allergy symptoms by blocking the effects of histamine, the chemical released by the immune system during an allergic reaction. Antihistamines come in pill, liquid, and nasal spray forms. They can be used daily to control symptoms. Some newer prescription antihistamines like levocetirizine (Xyzal) can offer 24-hour relief with just one daily dose [1].

Allergen immunotherapy: This technique involves getting allergy shots or taking sublingual (under the tongue) drops or tablets containing small amounts of the cat allergen. The doses are gradually increased over time. This helps the immune system build up tolerance to the allergen. Immunotherapy can lead to long-term reduction in allergy symptoms. It may take 3-6 months to see improvement [2].

Prevalence

It is estimated that around 10-20% of adults worldwide are allergic to cats (Sparkes, 2022). Studies have reported the prevalence of sensitization to cats ranging from 5-20% in patients with respiratory allergies (Sparkes et al., 2022). In population-based studies of infants in Norway and Sweden, allergic sensitization to cats was found in 0.3-1% of the sample (van Hage et al., 2023).

Risk Factors

There are several factors that increase a person’s risk of developing an allergy to cats.

One major risk factor is having asthma. Asthma causes a person’s airways to be more sensitive. This increased sensitivity makes people with asthma more likely to develop allergies to environmental allergens like cat saliva, dander or urine. According to research cited by the Mayo Clinic, asthma patients have a 30-40% chance of developing a cat allergy.

Another risk factor is having a family history of allergies. Allergies often run in families. If a parent or sibling has allergies, especially pet allergies, a person is at higher risk of developing cat allergies themselves. Genetics play a role in the development of allergies. According to WebMD, over half of children with one parent with an allergy will develop an allergy, and nearly 80% will if both parents have allergies.

Complications

The most severe complication of cat allergies is anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction that can cause throat swelling, difficulty breathing, low blood pressure, and even death if not treated immediately.1 Anaphylaxis requires immediate medical attention with an injection of epinephrine to reverse the allergic reaction and open the airways. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, 3% of people with cat allergies may experience anaphylaxis.2

Other potential complications of cat allergies include worsening of asthma symptoms, recurrent sinus infections, and increased susceptibility to other allergies over time.3 Cat allergies should be taken seriously and properly managed to avoid severe allergic reactions and other complications.

Prevention

The most effective way to prevent allergic reactions to cats is to avoid exposure to cat allergens as much as possible. Here are some tips:

  • Keep cats out of bedrooms and limit their access to common areas like living rooms.
  • Bathe cats weekly to reduce levels of Fel d 1 allergen in dander. Use a cat-safe shampoo and rinse thoroughly.
  • Groom cats daily to remove loose hair and dander. Use a rubber brush or glove designed for cats.
  • Use high-efficiency HEPA air filters in the home.
  • Vacuum frequently using a vacuum with a HEPA filter.
  • Wash hands after handling cats to remove allergens.
  • Wear a face mask when cleaning litter boxes or vacuuming.
  • Consider medications like antihistamines when allergen exposure is unavoidable.

Maintaining good hygiene and reducing allergen levels in the home can help minimize allergic reactions in people sensitive to cats.

Outlook

The long term prognosis for people with cat allergies depends on several factors. With proper management strategies, many people can continue living with cats despite their allergies. Treatment options like immunotherapy and antihistamines can help control symptoms over time. Avoidance of allergen exposure is also key – keeping cats out of bedrooms, bathing cats frequently, and using HEPA filters can make a difference. In severe cases, finding the cat a new home may be necessary if allergy symptoms remain poorly controlled. Overall, the outlook is generally positive if individuals work closely with their doctors to find an effective treatment plan. Many people are able to successfully manage their cat allergies long-term.

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