By Judith Tighe, RN, CPN, RN Remedies nurse blogger at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles
When I was growing up in London, England, we had a cat, as well as other animals including rabbits, chickens and one tortoise. Since then, we have carried on the tradition with two to three cats at any given time. You can imagine my surprise when my daughter moved away from home only to find out that she is highly allergic to cats!
Can Cat Owners Be Allergic To Their Pet Cats?
To discover a cat allergy after living with a cat for a long period of time is not uncommon, according to Ronald Ferdman, MD, physician in the Division of Clinical Immunology and Allergy at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “This is something we see very commonly. Certain people with allergic tendencies can get desensitized to their own pets. As soon as they stop contact for a prolonged time (the pet dies, they go off to college, etc.) the desensitization wears off and they get significant allergy symptoms upon re-contact with the animal,” Ferdman explains.
The allergic reaction is caused by the proteins in cat dander (e.g. flakes of skin shed by the cat), saliva and urine. Allergies to cats are the most common — more so than to dogs and other small animals. Both long- and short-haired cats can cause allergies. If you are curious about hypoallergenic cats, unfortunately, those do not exist. Children might react to some cats and not others, to the fallout from other peoples’ family pets, or even when pets aren’t around, as the allergen sticks to clothes.
Causes Of Cat Allergy
Children with allergies have overly sensitive immune systems that mistake the protein from cat dander for something that will cause harm to their bodies. Your child’s body attacks those proteins just as it would a bacteria or virus. In response, the body reacts with a wide variety of symptoms, including:
- “Allergic shiners” (bluish skin color under the eyes)
- Itchy throat or roof of mouth
- Itchy, watery or red eyes
- Itchy rash if the cat scratched or licked the area
- Runny, stuffy or itchy nose
- Waking up in the night with nasal stuffiness, sneezing or coughing
These symptoms are usually noticeable immediately.
If your child’s allergy symptoms are present for more than two weeks and are not going away like a common cold would (up to 10 days), or your child is having trouble breathing, then contact their doctor.
Cat Allergy And Newborns
If you are bringing home a newborn, keep your baby and cats apart for the first three months. Cats like soft, cozy places to sleep, and babies sleep a lot in the beginning, so it is tempting for a cat to cuddle up in the bassinet.
If your baby is premature (born before 37 weeks), you need to be extra careful to keep the cat away from your baby. A neonate’s immature lungs cannot cope with the irritating allergens produced by a cat.
If your cat is a big part of the family and relocating him is not an option, the best approach is to make your child’s bedroom a cat-free zone. Here are some suggestions:
- Wash your child’s bedding often and use allergen blockers on their mattress and pillow.
- Clean your child’s walls, window blinds, floor and ceiling, (and wash drapes in the washing machine).
- Discourage you child from hugging and kissing the cat.
- Encourage your child to wash their hands after petting or playing with the cat.
- Open your child’s bedroom window for a healthy exchange of air in the house.
- Use a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) purifier to help keep the air in the bedroom allergy-free.
- Vacuum the entire house frequently, preferably using a vacuum with a HEPA filter to catch dander.
These simple measures can help reduce allergy symptoms. If, after the rigorous cleaning, your child’s symptoms still persist, “there are safe and effective allergy medications available to block or lessen the symptoms,” says Ferdman. Contact your child’s doctor with questions regarding allergy medication.
If you choose to remove your family cat from your home, it might take three to six months for cat allergen levels to drop. However, cleaning your home can speed things up!
Ferdman tells parents that there are many social and emotional benefits to a child owning a pet. ”If the allergies are mild and/or controllable, the positive benefits may outweigh the negative aspects, and you don’t always need to get rid of a pet to which you are allergic.” In a situation like this, it’s important to keep your home clean to prevent cat dander from being spread.
To read more of Judith’s pediatric health care tips, visit WeTreatKidsBetter.org.