October 6, 2006
Cat Lovers Lining Up for No-Sneeze Kitties
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
A small California biotech company says it is ready to deliver the Holy Grail of the $35 billion pet industry: a hypoallergenic cat.
At the start of next year, the first kittens — which the company calls “lifestyle pets” — will go home to eager owners who have been carefully screened and have been on a waiting list for more than two years.
Since it announced the project in October 2004, the company, Allerca, of San Diego, says it has received inquiries from people in 85 countries seeking to buy a cat bred so that its glands do not produce the protein responsible for most human cat allergies.
Cats ordered now will take 12 to 15 months for delivery in the United States, 15 to 18 months in Europe. Cost: $4,000. And owners must pass Allerca’s finicky screening tests.
Prospective buyers are interviewed for motivation and warmth, approved as if they were adopting a child. Will they punish if kitty has an accident on the floor or scratches the furniture? Their families and their homes — from carpets to curtains — must also be evaluated for allergies and allergens.
“You’re not just buying a cat; it’s a medical device that replaces shots and pills,” said Megan Young, chief executive of Allerca. “At the same time, this is a living animal, so the well-being of our product comes before our customers. This is not some high-priced handbag that you put back on the shelf if it doesn’t match.”
In the United States and Europe, cats are the most common household pet — there are an estimated 30 million in this country alone — and cat allergies are one of most common human allergies. That combination has made many homes cauldrons of sneezing, itchy conflicts in which a fiancÃ© is allergic to his beloved’s favorite pet, or a mother-in-law cannot come for a festive meal because of Fluffy’s presence.
With cat owners sometimes paying thousands of dollars each year for allergy shots, antihistamines and air filters to damp down allergies, $4,000 for a sneeze-free existence may be an acceptable price tag. More research is needed, but preliminary independent studies suggest Allerca cats do not provoke allergies.
“As strange as it may sound, for us the price would have been worth it — it would have saved us money, and saved us pain from all the medical and also emotional problems,” said Christopher Cullen of New York. His girlfriend’s worsening allergies resulted this week in their putting up for adoption their beloved cat, Cimbi, who had achieved “mild Internet notoriety,” Mr. Cullen said, as the star of her own Web site, harlemfur.com.
Mr. Cullen and his girlfriend, Cheryl Burley, have fought a losing two-year battle to engineer a tolerable co-existence with Cimbi, because Ms. Burley, a devoted cat lover, has had cat allergies since childhood. On the Web site, you can watch Mr. Cullen, who works for the New York Senate Democratic Conference, giving Cimbi a bath to reduce her allergen load; he takes Cimbi on a leash to Morningside Park for a day, to give his girlfriend’s allergies a break.
The couple never put down carpets. They installed HEPA filters and vacuumed incessantly. But Ms. Burley’s symptoms worsened in recent months and that fragile equilibrium fell apart two weeks ago when the couple took in a second cat, Marley. Ms. Burley could not work, could not breathe and had a seizure. They took Marley to an animal shelter.
“Our whole life has gone downhill,” Ms. Burley said. “I missed four days of work. I’m back on inhalers, eyedrops and creams. This hypoallergenic cat would be a perfect solution for me. I’m determined to have a kitty.”
Dr. Sheldon Spector, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, recently studied the cats and said the concept seemed to work.
Ten volunteers with severe cat allergies were exposed to a variety of cats but showed no reaction to the Allerca cats, though all had symptoms with normal animals. “This is not a definitive study, but it is an interesting and intriguing concept that could really help people,” Dr. Spector said.
For the moment, he said he would not recommend buying the cats because “$4,000 seems like a lot of money” and there was still the chance that some people might react to some degree to less common cat proteins.
Most human cat allergies are caused by Fel d 1, a molecule that has been sequenced and its gene mapped in the last decade. At first, Allerca scientists sought a method to delete or disable the gene.
But in testing to see whether the gene had been effectively silenced, they made a fortuitous discovery: A very small number of cats carry a mutant gene that produces a modified protein, far less likely to induce allergies.
At that point, the research shifted course. Allerca screened thousands of cats to identify a population with the modified gene and then set those cats to breeding. Because the mutant gene is dominant, the breeding cats could be mated with normal cats to produce hypoallergenic kittens. And no special licensing or government approvals were necessary.
So, for the past few months, Allerca’s small pool of hypoallergenic cats have been busy reproducing. Their breeding facility cannot be visited and “is at a secret undisclosed location,” said Ms. Young, Allerca’s chief executive.
At 10 to 12 weeks, every Allerca kitten is neutered before it is delivered. The company insists this is mainly to prevent feline overpopulation. But every Allerca cat carries the dominant hypoallergenic gene and, in theory, could produce copycat hypoallergenic kittens.
In tests, Allerca cats do not produce allergic reactions. But only a few of the cats have lived in private homes, and only for a few weeks.
Last month, an Allerca public relations consultant, Julie Chytrowsky, kept Joshua, an Allerca cat, for several weeks at her Los Angeles area apartment. Joshua had flown to California to “do some publicity.”
Ms. Chytrowsky, who says she is normally quite allergic, had no symptoms even though she allowed Joshua to sleep in her bed. “I fell in love with him,” she said. “He is a real stud — well, he is a stud, really.”
The company insists on an assiduous screening of all prospective owners and their families because the cats may still not be safe for people with the most severe forms of cat allergy, such as people who have been rushed to the hospital after anaphylactic reactions. They might react to even the modified protein.
A Food and Drug Administration allergy test kit arrives five weeks before each kitten and all family members must be tested. Another required test detects the presence of other allergens in the house through a collection system that clients must place on their vacuum.
“We don’t want you blaming our cats if the real issue is mold or ragweed,” Ms. Young said.