Scratching the Surface. The Truth About Cat Allergies

What is a cat allergy?

A cat allergy is an overreaction of the immune system to proteins found in cat dander, saliva, or urine [1]. When someone with a cat allergy comes into contact with these allergens, their immune system identifies them as harmful and releases antibodies like histamine to attack them. This triggers allergy symptoms.

The most common symptoms of cat allergies include:[2]

  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Itchy, red, or watery eyes
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Itchy skin, rashes, or hives

These symptoms occur when a person with a cat allergy breathes in cat allergens or they come into contact with skin or mucous membranes. Reactions can range from mild to severe based on the individual’s sensitivity.

Prevalence of cat allergies

Cat allergies are very common. It’s estimated that 10-20% of the global adult population is allergic to cats. According to one study, cat allergy prevalence has been increasing over time. In the United States, around 1 in 10 adults are allergic to cats.

Cat allergies are more common than dog allergies. Approximately twice as many people have cat allergies compared to dog allergies. Cat allergies also tend to cause more severe symptoms than dog allergies.

Cat allergies can develop at any age, though they are more likely to first appear in childhood or early adulthood. Some research shows that over 50% of individuals with cat allergies develop symptoms before age 10.

While cat allergies are common, only around 40% of those with cat allergies also have asthma. Having both cat allergy and asthma together can increase symptom severity.

According to one study, approximately one-third of cat-allergic patients visiting an allergy clinic reported previous or current cat ownership despite their allergy [1]. This highlights how common cat allergies are, even among cat owners.

Causes of cat allergies

Cat allergies are caused by allergens found in cats including:

Cat dander – Cat dander is made up of tiny, often microscopic, flecks of skin shed by cats. These particles contain cat saliva, urine, and proteins that can trigger allergic reactions when inhaled.[1]

Cat saliva – Allergens in cat saliva can cause allergic reactions when grooming spreads saliva onto fur that is then shed. Cat saliva can also stick to surfaces around the home.[2]

Protein Fel d 1 – This is a protein found in cat saliva and sebaceous glands. Fel d 1 gets spread throughout the fur as the cat grooms itself. Contact with Fel d 1 is the most common cause of cat allergies.[2]


People with cat allergies often experience symptoms affecting the respiratory system and eyes. Some of the most common symptoms include:

Runny nose – Allergens from cats can cause nasal congestion and a runny nose. The nose attempts to flush out the irritating allergens.

Itchy eyes – Cat allergens may cause itchy, red, and watery eyes as a response. Rubbing the eyes can further irritate them.

Sneezing – Frequent sneezing is a telltale symptom of cat allergies as the body tries to expel irritants from the nasal passages.

Wheezing – Some people may experience wheezing, coughing, or shortness of breath from bronchoconstriction caused by cat allergens.


To diagnose a cat allergy, doctors may use skin prick testing or a blood test to check for antibodies against cat allergens.

Skin prick testing involves pricking the skin with a small amount of allergen extract from cat dander, saliva or urine. If a raised, red bump forms at the prick site, it indicates an allergy. This test is considered very accurate for diagnosing cat allergies. [1]

A blood test checks the blood for antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE). These antibodies indicate that your immune system is reacting to cat allergens. However, the presence of antibodies doesn’t necessarily mean you will have allergy symptoms. The results must be considered along with your medical history.


There are various treatment options available to help manage cat allergies. Some of the main treatments include:


Antihistamines like cetirizine (Zyrtec), fexofenadine (Allegra), or loratadine (Claritin) can help relieve allergy symptoms like sneezing, runny nose, and itchy eyes. Antihistamines work by blocking the effects of histamine, the chemical released by the immune system during an allergic reaction. They are available over-the-counter or by prescription. Some antihistamine nasal sprays like azelastine (Astelin, Astepro) can also help relieve nasal allergy symptoms. Antihistamines are most effective when taken regularly at the first signs of allergy symptoms. It can take several days for the full effects to kick in (1).

Nasal Sprays

Nasal corticosteroid sprays like fluticasone (Flonase) or triamcinolone (Nasacort) are very effective at relieving inflammation and stuffiness caused by allergies. They work by reducing swelling and mucus production in the nasal passages. It may take several days of regular use to feel the full benefits. Nasal antihistamine sprays like azelastine (Astelin, Astepro) can also be used to help open up the nasal passages and provide quick relief for allergies (1).

Allergy Shots

Allergy shots or immunotherapy can help desensitize your immune system to cat allergens over time. This involves receiving regular injections of small amounts of cat allergens in increasing doses under medical supervision. It can take 3-5 years to reach full effectiveness. Allergy shots may significantly reduce symptoms and need for medication in people with severe cat allergies (1).

Air Purifiers

Using high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in home air purifiers can help remove cat allergens and irritants from the air. Air purifiers with a HEPA filter have been shown to significantly reduce allergen levels and improve allergy symptoms. They are most effective when used in the room where the cat spends the most time (2).

Reducing allergens

There are several ways to reduce allergens in your home to help minimize allergy symptoms when living with a cat:

Bathing your cat regularly can significantly reduce airborne allergens. Bathing as often as once a week has been shown to reduce Fel d 1 allergen levels by up to 84%. Be sure to use a cat-safe shampoo and properly dry your cat after bathing [1].

Keeping your cat out of bedrooms can help reduce exposure to allergens during sleep. Close doors and use baby gates as needed. Wash bedding frequently in hot water to remove allergens [2].

Using HEPA air purifiers throughout the home, especially in the bedroom, can effectively remove most airborne cat allergens and provide allergen-free air. Change HEPA filters regularly according to manufacturer recommendations [3].

Alternative Cat Breeds

While there is no such thing as a 100% hypoallergenic cat breed, some cat breeds tend to produce lower levels of Fel-D1, the allergenic protein found in cat saliva, urine, and dander that causes allergic reactions in humans. These breeds may be better tolerated by some individuals with cat allergies.

Breeds that produce less Fel-D1 include:

  • Siberian – The Siberian cat originated in Russia and has a thick, long coat. However, it sheds less dander than other long-haired breeds. According to studies, Siberian cats produce lower levels of Fel-D1 compared to other cats.
  • Balinese – The Balinese cat is the long-haired version of the Siamese cat. It produces less Fel-D1 than other cat breeds.
  • Devon Rex – The Devon Rex has a short, curly coat that doesn’t hold much dander. This means less Fel-D1 spread in the environment.
  • Cornish Rex – Like the Devon Rex, the Cornish Rex has a short, wispy coat that doesn’t shed much.
  • Oriental Shorthair – The Oriental Shorthair sheds less than other shorthaired cats and may be better tolerated.

While no cat breed is hypoallergenic, these breeds produce lower levels of Fel-D1 and may cause fewer allergy symptoms in some people. However, individual reactions vary, so it’s best to spend time around the cat first before committing.

Rehoming Cat

If cat allergies are severe, you may need to consider rehoming your cat to provide relief. This can be an extremely difficult decision, especially if you have an emotional attachment to your pet. However, in some cases rehoming may be the best option for both you and the cat’s wellbeing.

If you do need to rehome your cat, it’s important to do so responsibly to ensure they go to a loving home. Some tips include:1

  • Contact local rescue organizations, shelters, or veterinarians to help find a new home.
  • Screen potential new owners carefully to ensure they will properly care for the cat.
  • Consider whether friends or family may be able to adopt your cat.
  • Provide the medical and behavioral history to help the new owner.
  • Follow up after rehoming to ensure it was successful.

Rehoming should always be a last resort. Explore other allergy management options first if possible. But if rehoming is necessary, take steps to ensure your cat’s health and happiness in their new home.

Living with cat allergies

If you are allergic to cats but don’t want to part with your beloved feline friend, there are ways to manage your allergies and improve your quality of life. Here are some tips:

Take medication – Antihistamines like cetirizine or loratadine can help relieve allergy symptoms. Nasal corticosteroid sprays can reduce inflammation in your nasal passages. Allergy shots can help desensitize you to allergens over time.[1]

Use air purifiers – High efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can remove allergens from the air. Place them in rooms where you spend the most time.[2]

Bathe your cat weekly – Bathing removes dander and saliva allergens from your cat’s fur. Use a cat-safe shampoo and dry thoroughly.[3]

Groom and clip – Regularly brushing and trimming your cat’s fur keeps dander under control. Wipe paws when they come inside to reduce pollen.

Clean often – Vacuum floors and furniture, wash bedding on hot, and dust frequently to remove allergens. Replace carpet with hard floors if possible.

Limit access – Keep your cat out of your bedroom so you have an allergen-free space. Consider rehoming if symptoms are severe.

Get allergy shots – Immunotherapy can increase tolerance to allergens over time with regular injections. Symptoms may significantly improve.

Though challenging, living with a cat allergy is possible with medication, cleaning, and lifestyle adjustments. Focus on allergen avoidance and work with your doctor to find the right treatments for you.




Scroll to Top