Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Allergic to Cats?

Kelsey with Bubba and friend at a cat show in 2005
I recently wrote about my son Tyler going away to college at USC. When I spoke to him last week, he made me nervous after he mentioned that he had a major allergy attack soon after he opened the care package I sent. What if he has developed an allergy to cats? I knew the box I mailed had been used as a cat bed before I loaded it up with goodies. Just try keeping a cat out of an empty box; they assume you got it specifically for their use and mine will fight over whose turn it is to sleep in the new box. 

I read an article years ago which referred to the allergy problem some college students face when they come home at Thanksgiving after being away from the family cat for a few months. This happened to my sister-in-law. I even experienced it myself after I left my pets with my mother in Weaverville, North Carolina at the age of 14 and went to live with my pet-deprived father all the way up in Ithaca, New York. When I came back to visit Mom, suddenly the long-haired black and white cat named Hal drove my allergies over a cliff every time he tried to get in my lap. I actually sympathized with all those people who declared they hated cats because they were allergic to them. The theory is that while one is living with cats or dogs, your body creates an immunity to their dander. Contrary to popular belief, it's the animal's dander and not their fur that causes an allergic reaction. Living in a pet household is similar to getting regular allergy shots, only a lot more cuddly. Once you leave a cat environment, your resistance gradually diminishes and you may find yourself a sneezing, snotty, miserable mess whenever a cat is nearby. 

I've had allergies most of my life. They started when I was a young child and because no one in my immediate family had allergies, at first Mom couldn't understand why I always seemed to have a cold. Because my allergies worsened at times of stress (i.e. Sunday morning when I was supposed to be getting ready for church), it was often insinuated that my allergy attacks were "all in my head". I can tell you the only thing in my head was snot. Many of my childhood memories are fogged by images of Triaminic Syrup, choosing clothing with large pockets to carry Kleenex, and my perpetually red, runny nose. I slept with a Kleenex box, littering my bedroom floor with used "snot wads" of tissue by morning. Why it took so long to move a trash can beside my bed I don't know.  Add that image to a girl who already had enormous buck teeth and you have a little Sharon. 

There was no Claritin back then and my mother didn't want to put me on the only medicine the family doctor offered to prescribe because it caused drowsiness. Lovebird the parakeet was moved out my bedroom and my feather pillow exchanged for a cotton one, but this wasn't enough. When I was finally taken to an allergist as a teenager, I tested positive for just about every known allergen, including cats and dogs. Still think it's all in my head Mom and Dad? The swollen reactions to the test stripes all over my back gave me the medical proof I needed to get my parents' attention. My major allergens were (and still are) grass pollen (especially ragweed), dust and mold. The mold allergy explained why Mom had always suggested that I was allergic to rain since that really sets me off. As a die hard animal lover, there was no conceivable way I was going to give up pets and since it's hard to avoid many environmental allergens, I got allergy shots for all five allergens through college. Pollen, dust, mold, dogs and cats. The arm that took the pollen, dust and mold shot always had the strongest reaction, becoming swollen, tender, hot and red for a day or so. The allergist also had more effective drugs to treat my symptoms than the country doctor in Weaverville so at last I found relief. Meanwhile, I convinced my father to let me adopt two kittens from the Ithaca animal shelter whom I named Simon and Garfunkel. 

It is believed that growing up in a pet household gives children a natural resistance to allergens they might not otherwise have. There's a video on Web MD regarding this, so I'm not just pulling this out of the dander-laden air I breathe. I found an article on strategies for living with cats if you have allergies. I will also point out that my cat allergies were profoundly worse back in the day when our cats went outside. Think about it; if the cat lies in the grass and you're also allergic to grass, you've just doubled your exposure when Fluffy comes in and gets in your lap. Just one more reason for cat owners to keep their cats inside.

A few tips for dealing with allergies I've learned over the years rather than moving to Arizona and living a life of misery without animals:
  • Get your children a pet while they are toddlers to build their resistance to pet allergies. I recommend a Maine Coon cat. The choice of dog breed is up to you but I have a personal fondness for Golden Retrievers.
  • If you are just allergic to dander and not to cat saliva, try visiting the homes of breeders who have more allergy-friendly cats like the Sphynx, Devon Rex or Cornish Rex to see how your allergies react. The Siberian is also supposed to be a good choice, but I can't verify that.   Breeders of these cats are experienced in working with allergy sufferers.
  • If you have asthma or chronic sinus infections, assume you have allergies and treat them first. 
  • Don't be afraid to try allergy drugs. Drugs are my friend and could have saved me a lot of Kleenex and embarrassment if I'd had them as a child.  
  • Lack of sleep and stress seem to worsen allergy attacks. Take a Benedryl and a nap if possible.
  • Keep your cat inside and if necessary, out of your bedroom. An occasional bath (for the cat) is helpful. If you start them as kittens, it makes a big difference to your cat's acceptance and your success.
  • Central air conditioning is a must, especially during the heavy pollen seasons in spring (trees) and fall (ragweed). Opening the windows to let in the cool autumn air can really backfire when the grass pollen settles on your pillow.
  • Consider allergy shots to build up your immunity to your allergens. A couple of years of regular shots may make a big difference in your comfort.
  • Don't drink beer or wine if your allergies are acting up. The hops and tannins will just exacerbate your symptoms. Instead, try a mixed drink.  
I am obviously biased, but unless someone has severe health concerns, there is hope for committed animal lovers who suffer from allergies. I know I couldn't live without the hairy little rascals.

1 comment:

  1. …and my perpetually red, runny nose. Add that image to a girl who already had enormous buck teeth and you have a little Sharon.

    Let’s not forget little Sharon’s winning personality.

    A few tips for dealing with allergies I've learned over the years rather than moving to Arizona and living a life of misery without animals:

    Hey! My move to Arizona had nothing to do with allergies. Not only that but we have 2 vicious, man-eating parakeets and a cute, little, man-eating hamster living with us in Arizona.