Allergic to cats but would love to have one? Perhaps there's hope

Allergic to cats but would love to have one? Perhaps there's hope »Play Video
Photo courtesy zaimoku_woodpile on Flickr (Creative Commons).

PORTLAND, Ore. - Cat allergies are a problem many people battle, but what if there was a way to know which cats cause the worst symptoms?

A local teenager thinks she has the answer.

Savannah Tobin,17, loves animals - that's why she's volunteered at the Willamette Humane Society in Salem for the last several years. And it was working with cats that got her thinking.

"I was inspired to do it because my mom has really bad asthma and I have allergies myself to cats, so I wanted to find out if there were cats out there that wouldn't cause allergies," she said. "So people that had allergies could adopt them."

Through research, she discovered that it's not the hair or dander that's the problem, but the protein in a cat's saliva.

"And as they groom themselves, they're covering their body in that protein," Tobin said. "So we're actually allergic to the saliva, not the hair."

A simple swab test will tell if a cat's saliva has high levels of the protein that can trigger allergies. Low levels mean the cat is hypoallergenic.

"It's very non-invasive compared to blood-based diagnostics," Tobin said. "It really only takes about two or three seconds and the cat doesn't have to contribute much."

Tobin will graduate from West Salem High School next week and is heading to University of California Davis in the fall. She received Best in Biochemistry at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for her saliva test idea and explained how it might work in the future.

"You walk up to the kennels, you see a kennel card with the name, age and gender, and right underneath that would be the relative 'allergenicity' of the cat," she said. "So maybe a high to low scale or maybe a 1 to 10. So people with allergies can adopt a cat on the low scale and they can have cats that won't cause allergies."

"I hope that she finds lots of support in her paths to both fund her research and expand upon it so that it becomes more of a commercial practice than just a research project," said Jay Levitre with the Willamette Humane Society.