Can Cat Fur Color Shape Human Allergies?

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Does a cat's coat color actually influence the severity of its owner's allergies?

Strange as it sounds, the question has been thrown around in previous years and even studied by scientists. A recent write-up on the website Improbable Research revisits whether cats with darker coats wreak more havoc on their owners' immune systems.

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Pet dander, skin flakes, saliva and urine can aggravate owners' allergies and asthma, but for cats in particular, a specific protein called "Fel d 1" is a common culprit. It's secreted by cats' salivary and sebaceous (or oil) glands, so when a cat grooms itself, it spreads the allergen to the outermost surface of the fur, increasing human exposure to the protein.

But does allergen production vary among cats with different coat colors, with darker ones creating more allergy problems for humans than lighter cats?

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So far, the results are mixed, but there's not much evidence to support the claim. One study presents a correlation through measuring owners' reactions, while another shows no correlation after measuring the amounts of Fel d 1 produced. It's likely that owners' household cleanliness and efforts to reduce pet dander in the home affect their exposure, making it hard to draw conclusions from research unless those factors are better controlled.

A New York Times article examined the same question and came up with no conclusive answer, but provided evidence from one study showing that male cats produce more allergens than their female counterparts. The difference results from males producing more testosterone, which amplifies the amount of Fel d 1 in their bodies, according to the Auckland Allergy Clinic.

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Human variation also plays a role, as some people possess antibodies more sensitive to cat dander while others don't. At this time, scientists don't know why some people's immune systems treat animal particles as threatening, but family history often serves as a decent predictor.

Identifying the factors that lessen pet allergies may help the 10 million people living with allergies to their furry cohabitants, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Photo by DeaPeaJay/Flickr.com