Almost everyone has at least one friend or family member who is allergic to cats. The severity of such allergies can vary quite a bit, with symptoms ranging from sniffles to life-threatening asthma. Some allergy sufferers react only when a cat is quite close to them, whereas others react even upon entering a house where a cat once lived. So the question of whether a person with allergies can safely acquire a cat—or whether a person who adopts a cat and then develops allergies can keep it—is impossible to answer in a general way. Most rescues simply will not place a cat in a home where someone has allergies, but then sometimes we place a cat in an allergy-free home, only to have the cat returned to us a year or two later because someone in the household developed an allergy from exposure to the cat.
We are often asked whether any breed of cat is hypoallergenic. The answer to this question is an exceedingly cautious yes, insofar as some cats, such as purebred Siberians and Balinese, seem to have less of one specific cat allergen—FEL D-1—in their saliva than do other breeds of cat. However, cats produce five different allergens, so even if a cat does produce less FEL D-1 than some other cat, an allergy sufferer might react to one of the other four allergens. In addition, to say that cats of a particular breed produce less FEL D-1 is to concede that they produce some, so whether a theoretically hypoallergenic cat, such as a Siberian, will cause symptoms also depends on how much of the allergen a sufferer can tolerate.
Many people falsely assume that a hairless cat, such as a Sphynx, will be hypoallergenic. In fact, whether a cat causes an allergic reaction has nothing to do with how much hair the cat has. The two most troubling cat allergens are secreted by the sebaceous glands of the skin or expressed in saliva. As rescuers who have taken in many Sphynx, we are sadly aware that some people with allergies react even more strongly to Sphynx than to other breeds.
All of this being said, about 10% of cat owners—including at least three members of our rescue–have allergies, which they manage either with medications of various kinds, or by taking steps to reduce the quantity of allergens to which they are exposed. One member of our rescue treats occasional symptoms with Benadryl, wipes the cat with a wet paper towel once a day, avoids letting the cat lick her face, and sleeps with a washable blanket or sheet over the top of the bed. Another takes Flonase (a nasal spray available only by prescription) every day, and a third has pulled up carpets and uses HEPA filters in an air cleaner and the vacuum cleaner to reduce the concentration of cat allergens in the air.
Although no one at PPCR would advocate that you risk your own health, and we certainly would never suggest taking chances with the health or safety of an asthmatic child, we offer the following sources of advice to those with merely bothersome symptoms who might want to try a technique or two before choosing to part with a cherished companion. We wish you and your cat the best of luck in this project.