Allergy expert gives top tips on how to stop cat allergies ruining your life

woman nuzzling cat
Don't give up quality time with your furry friend just because you're feeling sneezy. Photo credit: Getty.

There is no greater joy than having a furry friend to keep you company - unless, of course, that furry friend is causing you to itch, sneeze and be generally miserable. 

That will be the case for many of us in Aotearoa. Despite one in five adults being sensitised to cat allergens, New Zealand is the highest cat-owning nation per capita in the world.

A recent study by cat food company Purina found that 37 percent of Kiwis with allergies rate their symptoms as 'quite severe' or 'very severe', noting side effects like constant sneezing, intensive house cleaning and the inability to visit friends or whānau.

In extreme cases, 36 percent of Kiwis have relinquished, or considered relinquishing a pet because of their cat allergies.

David Thomas, associate professor at Massey University's School of Agriculture and Environment and director of the largest cat colony in New Zealand, says given physical contact is such an important component of the human-cat bond, allergies can weaken the relationship.

"The number of people suffering an allergic response to cats in New Zealand is not insignificant and an allergy is often cited as the reason for relinquishment of an animal to shelters, or a barrier to cat ownership or adoption," he said. 

CEO of Allergy New Zealand Mark Dixon has put together some top tips for cat owners who are sensitive to allergens, to help if you're feeling sneezy.

Keep your house ventilated

Clean and free-flowing air will help decrease airborne allergen levels. Allergens are mostly harmless substances that are capable of triggering the immune system, leading to an allergic reaction. 

In cats, these allergens are found on their hair and skin, known as dander. Cat's fur is very lightweight and floats easily in the air. Exhaust fans, air cleaners and high-efficiency ventilators are a cat owner's best friend. If you don't have one of these, something as simple as opening a window can help remove airborne allergens from your home.

Keeping surfaces clean when possible

While it may feel like a no brainer, ensuring your hands, clothes and home surfaces areclean is a sure way to reduce the effects of allergens. Washing your hands and clothes after cuddling your companion will help prevent a reaction and reduce the spread of hair and skin to other parts of the house.

Soft furnishings such as carpets will hold cat allergens for up to 20 weeks before decreasing to the levels of a non-cat household. Sofas and mattresses are also known to hold allergens for long periods of time. Regularly cleaning your cat's 'hotspot' surfaces, even the walls, will help keep those eyes clear and that nose dry.

Changing your cat's diet

An easy and convenient way to manage your symptoms is to alter your cat's diet. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the fur which causes that allergic reaction, but instead it is a protein called Fel d 1, produced in a cat's saliva. When cats groom, this protein sticks to their hair, skin, and eventually on to you, making your nose itchy, chest tight and eyes red.

Find a cat food which safely neutralises the protein in its mouth and reduces the allergens in its hair, like Purina Pro Plan LiveClear. 

Keep your cat moving

While we can't control the amount of hair on our cat's back, we can control where this hair goes. Generally, people are exposed to the highest levels of cat allergens in rooms where their cats spend time sleeping and relaxing. If you have allergies, you may have to consider finding a new spot for your cat.

This could include keeping it outdoors as often as possible and limiting its time in a certain area of the house to avoid big build-ups of hair and dander. Walking into your cat's favourite sunny room will disturb hair on furnishings, making it easily inhaled, so keep your cat moving to avoid this.

Protect yourself when you interact

Nobody wants to give up pet ownership, a simple adjustment to the way you interact with your cat can make a world of difference in reducing your symptoms. Limiting the time spent patting your companion will restrict overexposure to falling hair and skin. Using a face mask when changing the kitty litter and brushing your cat will prevent irritation and allow you to carry out regular tasks to take care of your cat.

Ultimately as cat owners, we want to spend as much time as possible with our pets and without irritating our immune stem. A mixture of these top tips will help you to get the best out of your furry friendship.