HEALTH: SECOND HAND CAT (appeared in the Globe and Mail)

“I got rid of the kids ‑ the cat was allergic”, reads the sign in the allergist’s office.

It’s a rueful reminder of the denial, verging on hostility, to cat‑caused sufferings ‑ the itchy eyes, sneezing , and even severe asthma that afflicts up to 40% of allergic people exposed to cats.

The public might be vigilant to the perils of second hand smoke, but when it comes to the victims of second hand cat, the attitude is one of indifference at best. “We get more and more calls from people allergic to cats,” notes Maxine Trusty, information counsellor at the Canadian Allergy and Asthma Information Association. Unfortunately, she adds, they get little sympathy or understanding.

“Some people seem to like their pets more than people”, she remarks. The allergic are often blamed for being anti‑cat, or not taken seriously. There is still some dark age thinking around that says the problem is all psychological.

When it comes to cat allergies, disinformation rules. One false notion is that somewhere, somehow, there is a cat that doesn’t cause allergy. No allergist would agree with this ‑ it’s not the hair but a protein in the saliva, tears, urine and the oil glands that adheres to dander (minute skin particles) and causes the symptoms.

Even a bald cat has the allergy‑triggering protein, but that didn’t stop the Toronto Humane Society from distributing a press release (later discontinued) from naming certain cats “suitable for mild allergy sufferers”. They also advised patients to “find an allergist who is supportive of your goal ‑ living with a pet despite your allergies”. Maybe smokers should seek respirologists supportive their goal of smoking.

Then there’s the totally erroneous notion that with enough exposure to kitty, the allergic victim will somehow become desensitized. The very opposite is true: when it comes to cat allergies, familiarity breeds worsening symptoms. At the cruelest extreme is the damage done to asthmatic children, up to 50% of whom are allergic to cats, whose parents nevertheless keep the animal.

“There’s no public awareness of the hazards of cat allergen”, Dr. Robert Wood, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.”

And yet the allergen (the substance that causes the symptoms) is everywhere. Wood was part of a JohnsHopkins University study that found cat allergen in schools, office buildings, even hospitals. The levels might be low, noted Dr. Wood, but, they add up. “People are being exposed every day to a great deal of allergen. This is one of the reasons our patients are staying sick and continuing to have high medication requirements.” Avoidance of the poison that triggers allergy is the main strategy for living with this chronic condition, he explains. Yet there is no escape for the person who works or studies in a sealed building near people with cat dander on their clothes, or the apartment dweller exposed to cat allergen through shared heating systems and carpeted hallways.

The true captives, though, are airline passengers. The space is sealed, the air recycled and there’s no escape. On some airlines, cats are welcome ‑ not just in the belly of the plane, but in the cabin, next to passengers.

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