Having a cat allergy came as something of a surprise to me. Growing up, I had many pets - cats, dogs and birds. My family were animal lovers and pets abounded, so being in contact with animals was a daily occurrence. No one ever seemed to suffer from a cat allergy or any kind of animal allergy for that matter.

After my teens and my last pet had died, I wasn't in a position to take on another pet for many years. Then, in 1994, a friend of a cousin was looking for a home for their last remaining kitten. And so it was that Kira came into my life. This was a cat with attitude and we bonded pretty much immediately. While she was still a kitten, I'd put her in the kitchen overnight with a little cat bed to sleep in and the litter box close by.

Kira when she was a kitten
Kira when she was a kitten

As she grew older, I started letting her sleep in the bedroom. It's surprising how relaxing a cat's purring can be in wee small hours.

A little over a year later, when down with the vet getting some supplies, I heard that there was a kitten that needed a home or it would have to be put to sleep. And so, Fritz came home with me that day.

Unfortunately, Kira was less than impressed with this interloper and I had to keep the two separated for several days before an uneasy truce ensued.

They're an odd pair - Kira has attitude, Fritz is much more companionable; what you'd call a "gentle soul". She's still the Queen around the house and occasionally puts Fritz in his place with a right-hook to the face when she feels the need to assert her authority.

As Fritz matured, he also was allowed into the bedroom. Both he and Kira would sleep there during the day and night, as was their want.

Kira sleeping on a bed
Kira sleeping on a bed

We all know that cats are the greatest creature-comfort-seeking animals on the planet and a comfy place to catnap is one of their major concerns. But the place your cat chooses to snooze may not be your first choice. While I didn't mind the cats sleeping on the bed, I did take exception to Fritz's tendency to charge in from the garden and sleep in a basket of warm, freshly dried laundry straight from the dryer.

Fritz sleeping on the couch (for a change!)
Fritz sleeping on the couch (for a change!)

A few years ago the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine conducted a poll of pet-owners on the sleeping habits of their pets and found that 60% of them sleep in bed with one of the family. Where cats are concerned, there are two potential problems here: one is that, somehow, they manage to take up 90% of the bed and the other has to do with allergies.

I found I had a mild cat allergy when I started producing weird wheezing noises any time I was doing something strenuous. Coughing eased it for a few minutes but it would always return. I figured I'd developed a mild respiratory infection, probably due to bad air quality and pollution, so I went to the doctor to have it checked out. After listening to my lungs he asked me one question: "Do you have a cat?"

Well, yes, I did. Two in fact.

"You're allergic to your cats", he intoned.

Then he asked if the cats slept in the bedroom. Of course they did.

"There's your real problem", he said. "What you're allergic to is the dander produced by your cats. When a cat sleeps on your bed, the dander ends up in the sheets and the duvet and you breathe it in deeply at night when you're asleep. Not good. That's what causes your wheeziness. Stop the cats sleeping in your bedroom for two or three weeks and see if that eases your symptoms. If not, you'll probably need to use an inhaler for the rest of your life."

Ok, that last sentence kinda hit me between the eyes. Much as I love my two furballs, I didn't want to suffer a long-lasting health problem that could possibly be avoided.

Cat Dander
Cat dander

So why is dander such a problem? It's the layer of dead skin that's rich in animal protein, which is continuously shed by animals. Sebaceous (oil producing) glands in the skin also produce these protein allergens. Male cats have, on average, greater amounts of sebaceous secretions and therefore are more allergenic than female or neutered male cats. This is a result of testosterone hormone effects on sebaceous glands.

Animal dander allergy can significantly contribute to respiratory problems involving the sinuses, nasal passages, and eyes, as well as causing upper respiratory tract problems that can result in asthma (as in my case). These problems can significantly diminish your quality of life despite various medical treatments. For some people, it can be even more serious, leading to recurrent acute asthmatic attacks that can be life threatening, requiring emergency room visits and hospitalizations. The good news is that most people who are allergic to their pets can keep their symptoms under control if they know the facts.

So, with that information, my cat allergy symptoms and the prospect of an enduring health problem, I banned my cats from the bedroom, threw out the duvet (on the advice of the doctor), bought a new one and changed everything on the bed (including getting new pillows). I didn't get too much sleep the first few nights with the cats meowing and scratching on the door to get in but they got used to the idea, finally. After three weeks in a cat free bedroom, my wheeziness had all but disappeared. The cats haven't been allowed back in since.

Should you find yourself with a similar cat allergy problem, banning the cat from your bedroom is one possible course of action. Alternatively, you can get your cat his own cat bed and put that somewhere out of harm's way (yours and the cat's).

Since finding out I was mildly allergic to my cats, I've spoken to other cat owners about it and quite a number also suffer some mild form of allergic reaction - sneezing, wheezing, watering eyes, blocked sinuses and so on. Owners appear to become at least somewhat immune to their own cats insofar as the symptoms are not as pronounced as they become when they're around other people's cats.

But, having said that, none of us would ever part with our feline companions and would exhort others to adopt a cat as a pet, as the benefits far outweigh any minor inconveniences.

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