Would you give up your cat for love?

Got felines: What happens when cat allergies get in the way of a relationship?

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published February 13, 2023 3:34PM (EST)

Cat Allergy (Getty Images/elenaleonova)
Cat Allergy (Getty Images/elenaleonova)

It's easy for cats to capture the hearts of many, with their bushy tails and wise eyes. Many people enjoy them as pets because they're more independent than dogs, and can even have longer life spans. But for people with cat allergies, cats aren't cute, snuggly pets. They're a constant source of skin rashes, itchy eyes, and sometimes, nearly fatal asthma attacks.

So what happens when a cat lover falls for a cat loather?

It's a love story as old as time (well, since cat allergies and love have existed) but one that surprisingly hasn't been the plot of a romantic comedy yet: Girl meets boy. Girl has a cat. Boy is allergic to cats. What's a girl to do? 

It happened to Salon writer Mary Elizabeth Williams.

"She was the sweetest, nicest cat," Williams recalled of a cat that she rescued from the basement of her old office building.

"A real lap cat."

But when Williams met her now husband who had a major cat allergy later that winter, her newfound cat posed a problem right away.

"He couldn't come over at all," Williams said of her new beau — not the cat. 

"No cat breed can be hypoallergenic, including those adorable hairless ones."

Nearly a year later, the two wanted to move in together, but the cat was still around. Williams said the fact that she was going to have to give up her cat was a bit of a "motivator" to get engaged prior to living together. "I needed to know this was going somewhere if I was going to give up this really cool cat," she said. So they got engaged, and she said goodbye to her cat. Luckily, she was able to rehome the cat with her aunt where she still had "visitation rights." Eventually, they moved in together. Yet despite rehoming her cat, and having her apartment professionally cleaned, her now husband still landed in the emergency room two days later because he couldn't breathe.

"He was so allergic that my coat, and my clothes, would make him allergic," Williams explained.

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According to a study published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, an estimated 10 to 20 percent of human adults are allergic to cats, and that number is on the rise.

"Although the severity of symptoms varies widely, the rising prevalence of this condition is a significant human health problem and in many individuals the disease can be serious and debilitating," the authors explained. In a separate study surveying the reasons why 195,387 families relinquished their cats to shelters, 1% said "relationship" was the cause while another 2% cited "allergy."

Colleen Lambo, a veterinarian with The Vets, told Salon that cat allergies can range from mild sneezing and a stuffy nose to hives and an asthma attack.

"Allergies can be a huge road-block when you love your cat but want to welcome an allergic human into your life,' Lambo said. "The allergens that cats produce are contained in their saliva, which they spread onto their fur and skin when they groom; unfortunately, this means that no cat breed can be hypoallergenic, including those adorable hairless ones."

As Lambo alluded to, it's a common misconception that people are allergic to cat hair. But instead, the culprit in the saliva is a protein called Fel d1, which is produced in a cat's salivary and sebaceous glands. It's the cat hair that is coated in cat spit. But it's not just hair the protein attaches to, it can stick to curtains, carpets and clothing. As reported by Nature, the protein's tiny size makes it so it can sneak into the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, too.

"If you have a cat but hope to spend time with an allergic friend or partner, all is not lost."

"If you have a cat but hope to spend time with an allergic friend or partner, all is not lost," Lambo said, suggesting that some of the "best solutions are usually based on cleanliness." She suggests replacing carpeting for "wood or tile floors" as well as "frequent vacuuming and dusting" to reduce allergen levels. "You can also bathe your cat regularly and install high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to limit allergens," Lambo said.

Medical relief 

New research suggests that allergen immunotherapy is an emerging treatment that can bring relief to people with cat allergies. According to a study led by the University of California-Los Angeles, monoclonal antibodies called tezepelumab could help provide lasting relief up to one year. A separate study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology showed that researchers have made a vaccine that could help people who are allergic to cats. According to the Mayo Clinic, depending on the severity of one's symptoms, antihistamines, corticosteroids, decongestants, immunotherapy and nasal irrigation are all potential treatments. There's also the theory that cat allergies can be controlled by a cat's diet, hence Purina's Live Clear. Currently, allergy shots are available for people who are allergic to cats, but patients must receive several injections, usually starting off at twice a week and then every two weeks or so for up to six months.

Lambo added: "It is always advised to offer a cat-free area, perhaps restricting their access to a bedroom or spaces your guests frequent."

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But is all this worth it in the name of love?

Cristy Brusoe told Salon she was surprisingly able to make it work with her partner who was allergic to cats, even when she had six cats.

"My cats are like my children, so it never really crossed my mind [to give them away]," Brusoe said. "I was very clear upfront in our relationship that they came first."

Brusoe said it was a process of introducing her partner to each cat. They also went through a round of allergy shots, but Brusoe said "they actually seemed to make her allergies worse." 

"We found that my partner would react worse to some cats than others," Brusoe said. "We were surprised at how she reacted to some of our cleanest, short hair cats but not our long hair cat."

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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