I'm in ur general vicinity makin u sneeze ur face off - Cat allergen super powers
August 23, 2012 6:57 PM   Subscribe

Why is one of my cats capable of causing great sneezing and burning eyes from mere contact, and the other seemingly powerless to cause more than a little itchy nose if hair is practically inhaled? Obligatory photos at the end.

When I was a kid I had some allergies, and I went through testing with an allergist that said I was basically allergic to everything under the sun. I remember having to go in frequently to get shots in the arm for this, but when they stopped I seemed to be fine being around most animals (though I never noticed issues before, my mom was hyper alert to such things). We always had pets, though, and barring my inability to handle exposure to rabbit fur (which would make me sneeze), I was pretty much fine. Sure, I had some minor sniffly times if I cuddled too long with our cats (we had a series of Siamese cats through my childhood as my mom was in love with them), but never anything major. When I went out on my own I stuck with shelter cats/dogs. Seven years ago I broke my long run of shelter pets to get a Bengal I named Pandora. It's probably the only time I'll ever skip the shelter to go to a breeder, but I was fascinated with Bengals. When I got her home, she had some eye issues (vet said infection from built up discharge, I was not impressed by the breeder, but had fallen in love with the cat) and we used eye drops, and it all cleared up. She gets little crusty bits sometimes and as appalling as it sounds, our other cat (also female, a shelter tabby cat named Daisy) cleans them for her. Other than that, which seems to be more of an "ew gross, eye bits again" and a quick clean up with a damp kleenex (if Daisy hasn't beat us to it), she has had no health issues. I wonder if this cat is Bengal and some major-allergen-producing breed? Could that be? She's an F4, as Bengals go, but I remember her father from when we picked her up. He was in a very large crate at the time, and was pacing like a tiger and mrrrowing like crazy - he was lithe, covered in clear rosettes, and gorgeous. Not much like my little fat furball. I saw her mother then as well, and for the life of me cannot remember anything about her.

The cats get along like wildfire, cuddling and grooming each other, etc. I'd had Daisy for a few years previous but they took to each other right away (as evidenced here with Pandora as a kitten). Daisy is an obsessive cuddler. She has slept on my head, in my arms, on my chest, around my neck, etc. I can pet her for hours and unless hair flies right into my face repeatedly, I experience no issues (even then, just a bit of an itchy nose is the result). I can pet Daisy and rub my eyes without even thinking, and suffer nothing from it. Then there is Pandora. I didn't notice it much when she was a kitten, but over the years I have learned to never, EVER, touch anywhere near my eyes after petting her. Because it will cause the greatest, most severe itching known to humankind. Seriously, I nearly want to take my eyes out and scrub them down with a good brush, they itch so badly. If she is next to me and I'm petting her, pieces of her hair need only float across my face and I find myself sneezing several times in a row, with that "need to sneeze" feeling lasting for ages afterward. If I have been petting her, and my nose itches, and I scratch it? Immediate sneezing. It's ridiculous, and easy to replicate, as it happens every single time. I still pet her, but I mind where the shed hair ends up, and make sure I don't waft it back my way if possible.

The interesting thing is that she affects everyone in the house in such a way (with varying severity - the sneezing seems more mine alone but the itching universal). My husband and son also have no issues with Daisy, but after petting Pandora - we ALL wash our hands. It's fairly common to hear my husband say, as he gets off the couch to go to the bathroom, "I have to wash my hands, my eyes have been Pandora'd." As far as I know, neither my son nor my husband have ever shown or experienced any cat allergies.

Pandora is a bit soft in the head, we think, but we love her dearly. Both cats are soft in the head, actually, but with Daisy it's more like, "Oh dear, I forgot who you are and will run away, but when you lie down I will climb on your chest and make you pet me til your hands ache." With Pandora it's things like her drifting into sleep while she has one leg in the air, mid grooming. Well, not sleep exactly, more like that smiley eyes shut drifty look cats get when they're happy. Only, you know, one hind leg up, the other straight out, front paws spread, and just....sitting there. She also seems to lack the judgement that allows most cats to know a safe jumping height or distance, and sometimes will attempt a couple times to jump onto things before making it (unless we see her, in which case she acts like she meant to do that). She has Bengal like markings, she is highly vocal like a Bengal, and she is not affectionate, or at least not in a standard way - she loves to purr up next to you and knead her favorite blanket, but if you pet her, she may just walk away and purr on the other side of the couch. In the last few years she has become more affectionate, and will actually sit still while we pet her, which we attribute to her finally deciding we are acceptable humans. Sometimes the skin on her back twitches when you pet it, and occasionally I wonder if we should get her skin checked, but with no other symptoms...I just haven't pursued that with the vet yet. She meows if you talk to her, meows if you pet her, meows if you are fetching her food, meows when she sees you walk in. She will converse at length on only one subject: Meow.

I've done some research and found articles positing that dark colored cats have more allergens. That male cats have more. She is neither (well a bit dark). Also I found several sites reporting Bengals have LESS allergens, and are safer for those with allergies. Which I find laughable in light of this one, Queen Pandora of the Sneeze mountains, master of all powers burning and itchy. I know Bengals are not really a "pure" breed, but a manufactured one by crossing Asian Leopard Cats with domestic felines, so if there is a cat that tends to produce more allergens, perhaps there's one in her family tree? The breeder is long out of business and I wouldn't know how to reach her, so that's not an option. I believe I had papers on her lineage (the cat's, not the breeder's) at one stage, but I've lost them over the years. In truth, I see her with many Bengal traits, and love her for being her, and it never crossed my mind to care much beyond that. She was spayed as soon as she was old enough for it, and I never considered breeding her.

As I've said, I love this cat, as I do all my animals, and would never dream of "rehoming" her. I'm fine living with it, and having her in my life is well worth the occasional discomfort and extra hand washing. But I am curious. Does anyone know if certain breeds produce more allergens? Is it worth trying to (thankfully she's not reading this) bathe her, or brush her, or anything, to make her less...itch inducing? Has anyone else had experiences like this with particular breeds?

tl;dr version: What is causing my Bengal to aggravate my allergies to stupid degrees and induce allergic reactions from others with no history of allergies? Anything I can do to make it better? Anyone else seen such an issue with Bengals or other breeds of cat?

Photo time -
Cute sleepy Pandora with her blanket.
And Daisy, being less than dignified.
Bonus video link: Mighty pen killer.
posted by routergirl to Pets & Animals (13 answers total)
Your cats are beautiful!

My experience with this is that there's a lot of hooey and anecdote about which breeds are better or worse for allergies, but that it is not highly correlated with my own experience. For example, Russian Blues are supposed to be low-allergen-producing, but I've had sneezing fits around them.

Some breeders try to claim (possibly just in ignorance) that Bengals are low-allergen, but I think that's based on nothing. In fact we got our current Bengal when his first owners had a huge allergic reaction to him and had to give him away (though for me, he provokes just a low-level sniffly reaction).

My approach to being cat-allergic but having a cat is just to take Claritin and that seems to work fine. You might run tests with Benadryl (fast-acting but drowsy-making) and Claritin (non-drowsy but takes several days to build up enough in your system, so you'll need to test for like a week), to see if antihistamines will control it.

Does she like water? It's possible you could bathe her, or just wipe her down with a wet towel regularly to remove some of the saliva (dry saliva is what causes the cat allergy reaction, as I understand it).
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:13 PM on August 23, 2012

There is information floating around about some breeds having more of a certain protein in their dander than others, but it varies from cat to cat; apparently, Pandora has quite a bit of this protein in her dander.
posted by infinitywaltz at 7:44 PM on August 23, 2012

I have always had cats and they've been known to sleep on my pillow and clothes and I've been fine. My mother also always had cats and was fine. But her last cat, an old fat ginger tabby, nearly killed her with what doctors said was practically untreatable asthma (it cleared up as soon as she was removed from the house with the cat) and even made me wheeze if I was exposed to him for any length of time. Phenomenal.

My only clue here is I know she fed him low-grade cheap kibble. Maybe you could try feeding Pandora something different?
posted by zadcat at 8:39 PM on August 23, 2012

I have personally experienced this phenomenon.

So allergies are basically your immune system responding to a particular substance as if it's a foreign invader. Sometimes it’s a chemical, more often it’s a protein (e.g., pollen, dust mite feces, mildew, etc). No one knows why particular substances tend to trigger allergic reactions more than others, but it's clear some allergies are more common than others. There’s almost certainly a genetic component.

Cats are all from the same species, but the different breeds obviously can have pretty divergent traits. My guess is that some cats simply have hair that more closely matches the Platonic allergen ideal our immune systems respond to, in terms of the protein structure of their hair. That would imply that there isn't a whole lot you can do about it, aside from washing your hands diligently after petting them, cleaning up loose cat hair, etc. I will second that Claritin helps a lot.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:48 PM on August 23, 2012

Hoooly lord, those are cute cats.

We have two part-Siamese catholes. The Old Lady (Agnes) is longer-haired and looks the Siamese part. Not sure what she's mixed up with. The Gray Bastard (Indigo) is a short-haired lump, and we wouldn't know he was part-Siamese, except that we knew his mother. I'd classify his non-Siamese lineage as "alley cat".

Indigo was a gift from my grandmothers, and before we brought him home, I buried my face in his fur to see if he would bother me. Much to my surprise, he didn't. Now that he's a 14 lb ball of love, he still doesn't bother my allergies very much.

But tiny Agnes is much more allergenic than Indigo, in much the same way you describe Pandora and Daisy. God only knows why this is, although I suspect the old cat is trying to punish us. When my mother was keeping Agnes, the cat inflamed my mother's asthma so much that she had to give her to us. Some cats are just terrible this way.

We reduce the pain of the Old Lady's cohabitation by combing her, throwing away the hair she leaves everywhere, and wiping her off every once in a while. It's a good thing she's so cute.
posted by Coatlicue at 9:57 PM on August 23, 2012

Agree, adorable cats :)

According to several sources, there is a protein in cat saliva that causes the majority of people's allergic reactions (Wikipedia link here). So as Lobstermitten mentioned, it's not the fur, it's the saliva on the fur. So maybe bathing her would help. Varying breeds have varying amounts.... maybe she just has an unusually high amount of the protein, and/or cleans herself a ton?

My boyfriend is pretty allergic to cats, and Claritin alone doesn't control it. But there are definitely some cats he can be around much longer than others, and there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to it... Airing out the space, keeping it clean and preventing allergen accumulation can also help a lot.
posted by iadacanavon at 12:00 AM on August 24, 2012

Yeah, this definitely varies from cat to cat. People who get mild sniffles around most cats have been known to break out in hives and struggle for breath after snuggling with mine. I'm careful to warn would-be snugglers now, but it took a while to figure it out. The vet says it's a genetic trait like any other.
posted by embrangled at 2:27 AM on August 24, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! It helps to know that others have experienced this. I mean, we always had cats and dogs both, when I was growing up, and I never had any issues like this (though on thinking more about it, I seem to remember a straggled persian we had for a while who did make me sneeze). She does groom herself a good deal, sometimes next to us on the couch, and even though I think I'd read that saliva is where the danger lies, I'd totally missed that. She's an odd cat, sweet as she is, and I did amuse myself with the thought that maybe she doesn't like to be petted as much as we think, and this is her defense mechanism - "Grawr! Launching allergy attack!"
posted by routergirl at 7:48 AM on August 24, 2012

Long shot, but does Pandora spend any time outdoors (or more than Daisy)? Could always be that she's tracking through bushes and plants and picking up pollen that's triggering the allergic reaction.

Also, regarding antihistamines, I've found that Allegra is the magic bullet for me that makes it possible to live with a cat I'm allergic to. (Inherited him from a family member who was on the verge of giving him away, but Allegra makes life tolerable.) So it's worth experimenting with the various OTC antihistamines (Allegra, Claritin, Zyrtec) to see which works best for you if you need something.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 11:55 AM on August 24, 2012

My aunt has two cats, both adopted from the shelter. I am seriously allergic to one and not the other. All of my family with cat allergies have a similar reaction.

My aunt's non-allergy aggravating cat does look a bit like a Russian Siberian though, which are supposedly low-allergen, and in my experience, do not aggravate my allergies.

HEPA filter?
posted by inertia at 1:29 PM on August 24, 2012

Response by poster: They are both primarily indoor cats. We have a small enclosed patio area they go into sometimes, but it's usually just long enough to go, "oh my god I'm outside!" and then they race to come back in.
posted by routergirl at 12:15 AM on August 25, 2012

My understanding of the protein breakdown is that unfix boycats are worst, then the ladies, then fixed boycats. Longer hair strikes me as an issue because it requires more saliva to clean. I've also heard that lighter-colored cats tend to be less allergy inducing, and presumably all cats have individual differences.

My anecdata: my mother has a mystery-breed/tabby/loooong-hair fixed girl shelter cat with dandruff issues who is essentially an adorable ball of allergens. Petting her for more than a few minutes makes my hands itch, let alone sniffles and watery eyes. My father had (until recently, alas) a large, very short haired mystery-breed/tabby fixed boycat who I could practically use as a pillow without ill effects.
posted by sarahkeebs at 10:03 AM on August 25, 2012

As a child, I was terribly allergic to cats. My aunt had 4 cats, and within 30 minutes of visiting, my eyes would swell shut and you could hear me wheeze like an accordian. Jump forward to 2000-I call up the boy I had a crush on in the 8th grade (now a 40 year old man), ask him out and we start seeing each other. He had cats. Lots of cats-11 to be exact. The first time I visited his place, I was armed with: inhaler, allergy meds (several kinds) benadryl, eye drops. Got there (and as much as he kept a tidy house, there was LOTS of cat hair, and the actual cats!) I kept waiting for a reaction. And waiting, and waiting. Jump forward again, to now. We've been together for over 12 years, have 6 cats and I still don't have any allergy issues. I figured it was a sign from the universe that he was the guy for me. My special cat Stella is long haired, and she, and Tim the cat sleep with us. One cat, Junior, a soon to be 20 year old neutered male will make ANYONE itch if he in any way pokes with his claws. Like when he kneads us and flexs his toes. He's the only one who will provoke any sort of allergic reaction. He's always been a rashy boy, so that may have something to do with it. My partner says it's all body chemistry-both ours and the cats. My personal theory is that it's sort of a homeopathic response-used to be, a little cat exposure would make me react, but a lot desensitized me and I no longer react. Maybe you need more cats?!
posted by LaBellaStella at 10:19 AM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

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