Many asthmatic sufferers are advised to get rid of their cats by their doctors who claim that their condition is likely to be caused by their cats. This is a misconception that brings severe consequences to the bond between man and pet, and the life of the cat. Before we conclude that these furry friends are the culprit, we should understand what asthma is, and how having pets around us can affect our health and resistance.
What is asthma?
Asthma is a disease of the airways or branches of the lung (bronchial tubes) that carry air in and out of the lungs. Asthma causes the airways to narrow, the lining of the airways to swell and the cells that line the airways to produce more mucus. These changes make breathing difficult and cause a feeling of not getting enough air into the lungs. Common symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness and excess mucus production.
It is caused by intrinsic and extrinsic (inhaled) factors. Intrinsic factors are respiratory infections; a cough, cold or bronchitis; exercise and tobacco smoke or other air pollutants. They can also be caused by an allergy to a particular food or medication. On the other hand, extrinsic factors are pollen, dust, dust mites, animal fur, dander or feathers.
As you can see, asthma is not just caused by having a cat (or any other pets) at home. If there is a lot of pollution and dust, an allergic reaction can also be triggered and cause a sufferer to have an attack of asthma.
Getting rid of your cat does not mean your asthma attacks will go away. Recent studies have shown that pet allergens can remain in the house for up to six months after the removal of the pet. Also there is evidence of cat allergens present in public places like shopping centres, libraries, even in hospitals (1).
It is also interesting to note that removing the exposure to the family pet may trigger greater problems when exposed to allergens from other causes. Some people may become even more sensitive to allergens when they no longer have any cats/pets at home (2).
Having understood the causes of asthma, it is important to consider the steps to take care of yourself (or your asthmatic family members) AND your pet cat. It is important to acknowledge responsible ownership and the following basic steps of cleanliness so that cat and man can live together in harmony.
- Removal of all carpets and fabric curtains or any other material which can trap fur and dust. This is especially important in the living area and bedrooms.
- Vacuum regularly with an effective air filter.
- Ventilation in the living areas should be good. Opening a window to allow air flow is a good way to remove cat allergen.
- Use dust-mite preventive mattresses, pillow covers and protectors.
- Remove woollen fabrics and even soft toys as they trap dust, dust mites and animal dander easily.
- Make sure your cat is groomed and cleaned regularly. Prevention of external parasites is important.
- Prohibit your cat from entering your sleeping area.
- Do not kiss and hold your cat near your nose if you are allergic.
- Wash your hands after handling the pet and his litter tray.
- If you are prescribed medication for your asthma, take it as instructed by your doctor. These will help you combat your attacks and strengthen your immunity.
Cats and Asthma
For many years, people have believed that asthma is caused and made worse by exposure to cats. Thankfully, however, more recent research has revealed different results, demonstrating that exposure to cats and other animals when the child is at infancy or toddler stage may even protect him or her against asthma.
In a study of 474 children from birth to 6-7 years old, it was found that exposure to cats and/or other animals in the first year of life reduced subsequent risks of allergic reactions to multiple allergens. Children who are exposed to more animals are less likely to develop asthma and allergic skin conditions than those who are exposed to none or just one pet (3).
Another study with 2,500 children from infancy to 4 years of age revealed that when these children were exposed to pets, they were associated with significantly reduced risk of asthma and allergic rhinitis (4).
Asthma is a serious condition and can be caused by many types of allergens and infections. It is important for us to understand that getting rid of our cats or other pets will not remove the problem.
We need to have a clear understanding of the disease and recognise responsible ownership.
(1) Bamsjukus, A.L. Cat and dog allergens: Dispersal, exposure and health effects in childhood. Report by Karolinska Instituete, Stockholm, Sweden., December 2002
(2) Platts-Mills, T.A. Paradoxical effect of domestic animals on asthma and allergic sensitization. Journal of the American Medical Association, 200;:288:1012-1014
(3) Ownby, D.R., Johnson, C.C. & Pet erson, E.L. Exposure to dogs and cats in the first year of life and risk of allergic sensitization to 6-7 years of age. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2002; 288: 963-972
(4) Nasfsted, P., Magnus, O., Gaaders, PI. & Jaakola, J.J.K. Exposure to pets and atopy-related diseases in the first 4 years of life. Allergy, 2001;56:307-31