Can Cat Allergies Be Cured by Exposure? The Surprising Truth

What Causes Cat Allergies

Cat allergies are caused by an allergic reaction to proteins found in cat dander, skin flakes, saliva and urine. The primary allergen is a protein called Fel d 1, which is produced in cats’ sebaceous glands and secreted through their skin and saliva (1). Fel d 1 is extremely lightweight and can stick to fabrics and float in the air for long periods. When inhaled by people allergic to cats, Fel d 1 triggers an overreaction of the immune system, causing an allergic response (2). This immune overreaction leads to the release of antibodies like immunoglobulin E and chemicals like histamine, resulting in allergy symptoms. Though all cats produce Fel d 1, some breeds like Siberian cats produce lower levels, causing less severe reactions in some people.



Symptoms of Cat Allergies

Common symptoms of cat allergies include:

  • Sneezing – Cat dander and proteins in cat saliva can irritate the nasal passages and trigger frequent sneezing.
  • Runny nose – Inflammation caused by an allergic reaction leads to increased mucus production and a runny nose. Allergies can also cause congestion.
  • Itchy, red or watery eyes – Allergens like cat dander can irritate the eyes causing itchiness, puffiness, swelling and watery discharge.
  • Coughing – Cat allergens can cause coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. Coughing helps expel allergens from the lungs.
  • Rashes – Some individuals may develop rashes like hives or eczema flares after exposure to cats. Allergic skin reactions are caused by an overactive immune response.

According to the Mayo Clinic, allergy symptoms often develop within minutes to hours after exposure to cats and can last from a few hours to a few days.

Can Exposure Help Overcome Allergies?

Allergen immunotherapy, also known as allergy shots, is a form of treatment that can help reduce allergic reactions by gradually exposing the immune system to small amounts of the allergen. This is done in a controlled, supervised medical setting and involves receiving regular injections containing cat allergens over the course of 3-5 years. Research shows this can reduce allergy symptoms and need for medication in the long-term.

According to the National Institutes of Health (, recent experiments with modified allergy shot regimens, such as using a monoclonal antibody called omalizumab, have provided longer lasting relief from cat allergy symptoms compared to standard treatments.

The process aims to change the immune system’s response to cat allergens over time. Early in immunotherapy, the injections contain very tiny amounts of allergens. The doses are gradually increased over the course of treatment to build up tolerance. Though early on shots may still cause some allergy symptoms until tolerance increases.

According to researchers (, while allergy shots don’t provide a guaranteed “cure” for cat allergies, they can significantly reduce the immune system’s overreaction and need for medication in many people. The therapy essentially retrains the immune system to be less sensitive to cat allergens over time.

Gradual Exposure Therapy

Gradual exposure therapy is a method for helping people with cat allergies become desensitized over time. It involves controlled, incremental exposure to cats or cat allergens to allow the body to build up a tolerance. This type of immunotherapy aims to reduce immune system reactions to cat dander and proteins.

With gradual exposure therapy, the process starts at very low levels of exposure to cat allergens. A person may start by spending time in a room that previously had a cat in it or by interacting with items that have very low amounts of cat dander, like clothing. Over a period of weeks or months, the exposure levels are slowly and systematically increased by factors like longer durations, closer proximity to cats, more direct contact with cats, and higher allergen concentrations. Each increase in exposure is maintained long enough for the body to adapt before the next increase is initiated.

This controlled regimen conditions the immune system to incrementally tolerate higher exposures without reacting. Research indicates that this technique shows promise for allowing people to eventually keep cats as pets and substantially reduce allergy symptoms from cat exposure. However, the process requires discipline, patience, close monitoring, and guidance from an allergist to implement safely.

While gradual exposure therapy aims to minimize allergic reactions, some mild symptoms may still occur during the process. Certain medications may help manage these temporary effects. This method also may not eliminate cat allergies entirely in all patients. But with careful execution under medical supervision, building tolerance through gradual exposure can significantly improve quality of life for many people with cat allergies.

Tips for Safe Exposure

If you want to try gradual exposure to overcome cat allergies, there are some tips to make it safer:

Take allergy medication as prescribed by your doctor before interacting with cats. Antihistamines like cetirizine or loratadine can help reduce allergy symptoms during exposure (source).

Limit your time around cats at first, starting with just a few minutes per day. Slowly increase exposure over weeks and months as symptoms allow (source). Don’t overdo it.

Wash your hands immediately after petting or touching cats. Cat dander on your hands can transfer to your eyes and nose, triggering reactions (source).

Avoid touching your face or eyes while interacting with cats. Also shower and change clothes after prolonged exposure if possible.

Other Methods to Reduce Reactions

In addition to gradual exposure therapy, there are some other methods that can help reduce allergic reactions to cats:

Using HEPA filters can remove cat allergens from the air. HEPA filters are designed to capture very small particles like pet dander. Placing HEPA filters in the home’s HVAC system or using portable HEPA air purifiers in rooms where you spend the most time with the cat can help clean the air.[1]

Frequently cleaning the home to remove allergens can also help. Cat dander gets everywhere, so it’s important to regularly sweep and mop floors, vacuum carpets and rugs, and clean furniture. Washing bedding frequently in hot water is also recommended. [2]

Some cat breeds are marketed as “hypoallergenic” because they produce less of the Fel d 1 protein that triggers allergies. While no cat is completely non-allergenic, breeds like the Siberian, Russian Blue, and Bengal may cause fewer allergy symptoms for some people. [3]

When to See a Doctor

In most cases, cat allergies cause mild symptoms that can be managed at home. However, you should seek immediate medical care if you experience any of the following severe reactions:

  • Trouble breathing – This includes wheezing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, coughing fits, or rapid breathing.
  • Severe reactions – Swelling of the lips, face, tongue, or throat, lightheadedness, dizziness, confusion, blue color to the skin, or fainting.
  • Anaphylaxis – A life-threatening reaction involving multiple symptoms like trouble breathing, low blood pressure, vomiting, diarrhea, and skin rash.

These reactions require emergency medical treatment as they can rapidly become dangerous or fatal if left untreated. At the first sign of any severe symptoms after exposure to a cat, seek immediate medical care by calling 911 or going to an emergency room.

In addition, you should see an allergist if your cat allergy symptoms are not well-controlled with over-the-counter medications or if they are significantly impacting your quality of life on a regular basis.

A doctor can help identify the specific allergen trigger, provide prescription medications, or recommend immunotherapy options like allergy shots to help treat severe cat allergies over the long term.

Allergy Medications

There are several types of medications that can help manage cat allergy symptoms. Antihistamines are commonly used to treat mild symptoms and work by blocking the effects of histamine, a chemical released by the immune system during an allergic reaction. Popular over-the-counter antihistamines for cat allergies include loratadine (Claritin), cetirizine (Zyrtec), and fexofenadine (Allegra). These can help relieve sneezing, itchy and watery eyes, runny nose, and other allergy symptoms (GoodRx, 2023).

Decongestants like pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine are sometimes combined with antihistamines in allergy medications. These constrict blood vessels and reduce swelling in the nasal passages. However, decongestants should be used with caution as they can cause side effects like elevated blood pressure and insomnia.

For more severe allergy symptoms, doctors may prescribe corticosteroid nasal sprays like fluticasone (Flonase). These powerful anti-inflammatory drugs can help reduce inflammation in the nasal passages caused by an allergic reaction. Oral corticosteroids like prednisone may also be prescribed for short-term use in extreme cases.

Alternative Remedies

Along with traditional allergy medications, some natural and alternative remedies may help relieve cat allergy symptoms. Local, unpasteurized honey contains small amounts of local pollen. Consuming local honey may help desensitize you to those allergens over time and reduce reactions.

According to a 2013 study, acupuncture may reduce inflammation and help relieve respiratory symptoms caused by allergies. Acupuncture involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body to stimulate nerve fibers.

Nasal irrigation with saline solution can also help flush out mucus and allergens from nasal passages. Use a specially designed pot or neti pot to regularly rinse the nasal cavity with salt water.

While some find these remedies helpful, more research is still needed on their efficacy. Always discuss trying alternative methods with your doctor first.

Managing Cat Allergies

Living with cats when you have allergies can be challenging, but there are ways to manage your symptoms and reduce allergic reactions. Here are some tips:

  • Keep cats out of your bedroom and limit them to certain areas of the home. This reduces exposure to allergens where you sleep (WebMD).
  • Bathe your cat weekly with a mild pet shampoo. Bathing removes allergen-containing saliva, skin dander and urine residue (ACAAI).
  • Use HEPA air filters throughout your home to remove allergens circulating in the air (Ohio State).
  • Vacuum frequently using a HEPA filter vacuum. Be sure to dispose of the bag afterwards so allergens don’t recirculate in the air.
  • Wash your hands after petting cats to remove saliva and dander allergens.
  • Consider keeping furniture covers on upholstered furniture for easier washing and cleaning.
  • Use allergen-impermeable covers on mattresses, box springs and pillows.
  • Wear an N95 face mask when cleaning, vacuuming or handling your cat’s litter.

While challenging, taking steps to reduce allergen exposure can allow cat lovers with allergies to still enjoy their feline companions.

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