IMAGE: Allergy-free cat
Julie Chytrowsky
Joshua is one of a line of cats sold by Allerca Lifestyle Pets that don't carry the gene that produces Fel d 1, a protein responsible for most allergies.
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msnbc.com
updated 12/6/2006 6:56:34 AM ET 2006-12-06T11:56:34

Jennifer Fabian loves dogs, and they love her. But her body betrays her every time she pets them or is even in the same house with them.

Her throat and nose itch, and her eyes water and get puffy. Before going to the homes of her dog-owning friends, she takes an antihistamine and keeps more on hand as needed. “I usually take two or three Benadryl over a two-hour period,” she says. “Then I go home and shower to get all the fur and dander off.”

People with allergies make up about 20 percent of the population, and of those, about 30 percent are allergic to cats, dogs or other pets, such as rabbits. Whether they’re furry or hairless, wire haired or single coated, all dogs and cats produce saliva, urine and dander (dead skin flakes) that carry allergens.

But many people with allergies aren't willing to give up the possibility of having a pet of their own. And that's where breeders and even genetic engineering come in.

A San Diego company recently announced it has developed a line of cats that carries a mutant gene that prevents them from producing Fel d 1, the protein that causes people to be allergic to cats. Allerca Lifestyle Pets will place the first cat next year. The price tag for an allergy-free kitten? $3,950.

Judy Smith of Watertown, Mass., says the cost is worth it to her. Her family had a cat when she was growing up, but her allergies have become worse since then and she's never been able to have a cat of her own. She ordered an Allerca cat as soon as the company announced it was taking names for the waiting list.

"I'm a huge cat lover and have always wanted another cat," Smith says. "This is like a dream come true. A lot of people would say it's a lot of money to spend on a cat, but for somebody who's a cat lover and doesn't have any other options, it's definitely worth it."

Could still make you sneeze
But that doesn’t mean Allerca's cats can’t still cause allergies. People have different degrees of sensitivity, says Dr. Oren P. Schaefer, an allergist and associate professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. Although Fel d 1 causes most of the difficulty, cats produce other proteins that can also cause trouble.

Before Allerca places a cat — the first one is scheduled to be adopted early next year — the company sends an allergy-testing kit to determine how sensitive the buyer is to cats and to check the home for other potential allergens.

“If a person who is interested in one of these Allerca cats shows a very high reactivity, they will tell them ‘No, this is probably not going to be the most appropriate pet for you,’” says Allerca spokesperson and veterinarian Bernadine Cruz of Laguna Hills, Calif. “If somebody does get one of the cats and then decides ‘I really don’t want a cat’ or starts to develop an allergic reaction, Allerca will take the cat back, you will get a refund, and they will find it another home.”

The cats arrive already spayed or neutered — which besides preventing unwanted kittens, allows the company to control their production — and the price includes a year of pet health insurance.

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More people are allergic to cats than dogs, points out Schaefer. "Cats tend to spend more time indoors and find their way onto the bedding more often,” he says.

Allergy-free dogs?
But what about dogs? A number of breeders claim their specialty pooches are hypoallergenic, most commonly poodles, poodle crosses such as cockapoos and Labradoodles, and various terrier breeds.

Fabian has less severe reactions when she pets the neighbors’ bichon and Pomeranian than when she visits friends who have heavily shedding breeds such as a Labrador and a pug.

“Everyone says ‘Well, I’m not allergic to my cat or dog’ or ‘I’m allergic to German Shepherds but not spaniels’ and what I tell them is ‘dogs are dogs,’” Schaefer says. “They all have the basic antigen; it’s identical. That said, some make more antigen than others, and some houses are cleaner than others from an allergen point of view, so there are a lot of reasons people might have trouble at the neighbor’s house and not their house and vice versa.”

Cruz theorizes that frequent grooming makes bichons, poodles and similar breeds less allergenic. “They have a constantly growing coat and always need to go to the beauty shop and get bathed, so you’re bathing off a lot of the dander and they’re not carrying around as much on their body,” she says.

Before you decide to try your luck with a reputedly hypoallergenic cat or dog, remember that allergies can build over time. You may not react to a particular animal on first meeting, but can develop an allergy after living with it for days, weeks or even months. Honest breeders will tell you that, and reputable ones won’t sell a pet to people with allergies for fear that it will be returned months later.

Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.

Creature Comforts appears the third Monday of every month.

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