After pollen and dust mites, pets are among the most common triggers for allergies. At least, a new vaccine gives hope to cat lovers. If you try out the therapies listed below, you may be able to hold your dear cat again, without having to fear an allergic shock. Having a pet as someone with allergies may feel like you are playing at casino NetBet, you do not know what the outcome will be. Sometimes you strike gold, no side effects, other times you fail miserably and have to be taken to the hospital for an EpiPen injection.
When the baby cat becomes a nuisance
“Unfortunately, an allergy to a pet can develop suddenly,” says Professor Ludger Klimek, President of the Association of German Allergists. A shock for many of those affected. You usually feel it in the airways, your nose itches or is blocked, clear secretion flows. Headache, puffy eyes, and a scratchy throat are other typical symptoms. The skin can react with a rash and hives. There is also an increased risk of developing allergic asthma. “If you have a recurring cough, chest tightness, or shortness of breath, this should definitely be clarified by a doctor,” advises Anja Schwalfenberg from the German Allergy and Asthma Association in Mönchengladbach.
Is it a pet hair allergy?
But what triggers the discomfort? “The term animal hair allergy is a bit misleading,” says Schwalfenberg. Strictly speaking, it is not the fur that triggers the allergy. The proteins to which the human immune system reacts are found in the saliva, urine, and skin flakes of the animals or are produced in their sebum and anal glands. The allergens are very small and can bind to fine dust particles. When the cat brushes itself, it spreads the substances in its fur. But they are also in the air in the room and stick to clothes and furniture. Schwalfenberg: “Allergy sufferers can therefore react even if they are not in close contact with the animal.”
Pets are the third most common cause of allergies
There are no exact figures as to how many people are affected. Expert Klimek assumes that there is six to eight percent of the population. This makes animals the third most common allergy trigger – right after pollen and house dust mites. People are still buying pets, and the number of households with one or more is increasing steadily. According to estimates by the Central Association of Zoological Companies in Germany, there are 34 million pets. They are particularly popular in households with children. 65 percent of families have a pet. The most popular are cats, followed by dogs and small animals such as guinea pigs.
“In general, you can have an allergic reaction to many animal species,” explains Schwalfenberg. But especially those who wear fur cause problems. According to the Allergy Information Service, allergies to cats are about three times more common than those to dogs. But the immune system also strikes cattle or horses from time to time. The most common way to track down a pet hair allergy is to do a skin test. The doctor slightly scratches the skin and confronts the puncture sites with the suspected allergens. If there is a reaction, wheals and redness appear. You can get a clear diagnosis by doing a blood test.
If several animal species cause problems for the patient, further molecular biological diagnostics can determine more precisely which allergens are causing the symptoms. Animal lovers should then perhaps get a dog instead of a cat. Some allergens only occur in males, a bitch would be the alternative. These diagnostics are helpful for tailor-made immunotherapy (desensitization). “In Germany, however, the method is still used cautiously,” says Schwalfenberg.
Separation or immunotherapy
Bitter for pet owners: Anyone who is affected by an animal hair allergy should avoid contact with their four-legged friends. That can mean breaking up with your beloved roommate. Drugs like antihistamines can provide relief in the short term but are not a solution in the longer term.
The only way to tackle the cause of the allergy at the moment is immunotherapy, also known as desensitization or desensitization. The effectiveness of cat allergens has been well proven; it works in up to 85 percent of treated patients. Little research has been done on it for other animal allergies. Treatment is an option if contact with the animal cannot be avoided, for example with veterinarians or the visually impaired who rely on a guide dog. Over a period of three years, the patient is injected with an increasing dose of the relevant allergy trigger – initially weekly, then with an interval of four to six weeks.
Vaccine against allergens for cats
One hope for cat allergy sufferers is currently coming from science: A research group at the University of Zurich is working on a new vaccine called “HypoCat”. It is used to vaccinate cats, not humans. The aim is for the animal to produce antibodies against a protein that is one of the main triggers of cat hair allergy. In one study, 54 cats were given the vaccine three times. In her tear fluid, it could be shown that the protein was significantly reduced as a result. The treatment did not show any major side effects in the cats, the researchers report.
However, a market launch cannot be expected for a few years. And there is one more problem. Klimek: “Affected cats will continue to be allergic to other cats that have not been vaccinated.”