Sticky cat dander can go far and wide – even accompany children to school.

You may think there’d be nothing sweeter as a gift than a tiny kitten, tumbling over itself as it plays or purrs on your lap. But before you choose between tabby or calico, consider your family’s allergy and asthma history.

Cat dander is a potent allergen, and people who already have environmental or pet allergies personally, or have a family history of environmental or pet allergies, are at increased risk of developing an allergy to cats. If that’s you, the more time you spend around a cat, especially in close quarters like your home, the more likely you are to develop an allergy to it.

The allergen is so sticky it travels with you, too. You can pick it up on your clothing just being around a cat owner. Researchers have found traces of cat allergen in homes that have never had a cat – and even on remote islands without cats.

For this reason, allergists consider cat allergen as a normal part of house dust, even if a cat is not in the home.

“Levels of cat allergen are often very high in school classrooms where some students have cats at home,” says Bryan Martin, DO, Past-President of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI). “Students who are allergic to cats pick up the cat allergens and this can worsen their allergies or asthma.”

If your child’s allergies or asthma are worse after school, talk with teachers or the school nurse about whether allergens in the classroom are causing symptoms.

Facts about cat allergy

• It’s not just about the fur – animal allergen proteins are found in skin flakes, urine and saliva. That means there are no “hypo-allergenic” cats – even the odd-looking hairless sphinx ones.

• Cat allergens are small enough to invade the tiniest airways of the lungs, which is what makes them so dangerous to those with asthma or other respiratory diseases.

• Cat allergy symptoms include runny nose and congestion; itchy, watery eyes; and cough. Some patients get skin rashes. Symptoms may appear as soon as you are near a cat, or emerge hours after exposure. Those with asthma and cat allergy risk triggering an asthma flare.

• Try to control symptoms with nasal washes, antihistamines, eye drops or a corticosteroid nasal spray. Talk with your doctor if you know you’re going to be exposed to a friend or relative’s cat; it may be helpful to take allergy medications in advance.

• Allergy shots (immunotherapy) are quite successful at treating and curing pet allergy, but it takes a few years to reach maximum response.

Ways to reduce cat allergens

• Keep the cat out of the bedroom and off upholstered furniture as much as possible. Change into and wear pajamas only inside the bedroom, to avoid carrying allergens from the family room into your bed.

• Wash your hands after touching a cat.

• Select throw rugs that can be washed in hot water and launder them regularly.

• Vacuum frequently. Use a HEPA-filtered vacuum on furniture and floors and HEPA air cleaner in the bedroom. Be aware that the sticky dander is difficult to remove entirely.

• Give the litter-box cleaning chore to someone without cat allergy.

• Encase your mattress and pillows with allergy-proof covers to protect you from cat allergens that may already have gotten into bedding.

These steps are worth trying if you can’t bear to part with your cat. They have been tested and shown to have some effect on cat allergens, but not enough to impact symptoms in allergic children. The easiest way to avoid cat allergens is to not have a cat.

Reviewed by Peyton Eggleston, MD