Are There Hypoallergenic Cats? Scientists Are Getting Closer to Making That a Reality
If you're a pet lover with cat allergies, you've certainly wondered whether there are hypoallergenic cats. The prospect of being able to hold a fluffy kitty without sniffling, sneezing, or itching sounds too good to be true for many of us.
A whopping three in 10 people living in the United States have dog or cat allergies. And cat allergies are around two times more common than dog allergies.
If you have pet allergies, there are ways to limit your suffering, but odds are you're going to be at least a little uncomfortable around most cats. For now at least. Researchers are getting closer to developing a hypoallergenic cat using gene-editing technology that eliminates or alters DNA that encodes the protein humans are allergic to.
So there is hope: Allergy sufferers may one day be able to toss away the nose spray and tissues around their furry friends.
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So No Hypoallergenic Cat Breeds, Huh?
Nope, sorry. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, no cats—or dogs, for that matter— are truly allergen-free.
"While there are claims that certain breeds of cats may be less allergenic than average, there are no true hypoallergenic cat breeds," explains Nicole Brackett, senior scientist at INDOOR Biotechnologies.
Brackett says studies show the level of allergen cats produce can vary significantly between cats and even within the same cat over time. She explains that the major cat allergen, the Fel d 1 protein all cats produce, primarily comes from cats' salivary glands and their skins' sebaceous (sweat) glands.
"As the cat grooms, the allergen is deposited on their fur through the saliva and subsequently spread through the environment," she says.
So that's why hairless cats aren't hypoallergenic. They still produce saliva and sweat, allowing the Fel d 1 to enter our homes. But that's not the end of the story.
Creating Cats for Allergy Sufferers
Because all cats release Fel d 1, the only path to hypoallergenic cat breeds is creating a breed that doesn't produce it.
This is exactly what Brackett and her team are aiming to do. In their recent study published in The CRISPR Journal, the researchers set out to determine whether they could use CRISPR gene-editing technology to effectively delete Fel d 1 in cats' DNA. It may sound futuristic, but CRISPR works by finding specific parts of DNA responsible for creating molecular compounds and altering them.
To determine whether deleting Fel d 1 from cat's genetics is possible, the team first had to prove it isn't essential for survival. They compared the allergen gene sequences from 50 domestic cats and 24 exotic cats and found that the sequences varied considerably.
"This variability suggests the allergen is not well-conserved between cats, which ultimately suggests that the allergen may not be essential," Brackett explains.
So if the gene isn't essential, could CRISPR alter the region of DNA responsible for Fel d 1? Using feline cell cultures, the team was able to use CRISPR to effectively remove Fel d 1 in 55 percent of trials. Better yet, when they did alter these DNA regions, there was no evidence that other, non-targeted regions were affected.
To Brackett, their findings put us closer to developing a hypoallergenic cat.
"Our approach would be the first treatment option to effectively remove the allergen from the source, which will be a significant improvement over existing treatments that merely reduce allergic symptoms," Brackett says.
She explains that future studies must replicate these results in the specific cat cells and tissues that produce the allergen and, eventually, in actual cats.
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Best Cat Breeds for Allergies
While hypoallergenic cats may exist at some point in the future, we're not there yet. So allergy sufferers will be in the market for the next best thing: cats for people with allergies, the ones who may produce less Fel d 1.
These cats either possess lower amounts of Fel d 1 or don't shed as much, so they introduce less cat allergens into the environment:
Tips for People With Cat Allergies
Even if you do adopt a low-allergen cat, you'll still need to be careful. Low-allergen doesn't equal no-allergen.
"Most importantly, someone who is cat-allergic should wash their hands after touching a cat and never touch their face or eyes before doing so," says Barbara Hodges, DVM and the program director of advocacy and outreach for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA).
Those are the safety basics if your allergies act up when you see cats occasionally. Living with them is another story, but Hodges has several ideas to make it easier:
- Bathe and groom cats more frequently, consider using a professional groomer
- Vacuum and wash cats' bedding and toys often
- Ban cats from the bedroom (a near-impossible one, we know)
- Keep cats exclusively inside so they don't collect plant pollens and other outdoor allergens
- Install high-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) air filters on your HVAC systems
But can you build immunity to cat allergens?
While it certainly doesn't work for everyone, some people may benefit from immunotherapy, a process in which you increase your allergen tolerance by getting allergy shots. They'll start at a frequency of once or twice weekly for as long as six months, followed by monthly booster shots for the following three to five years. These allergy shots contain small doses of Fel d 1.