Allergy-proof cats, again

siberian catWheeze. Sneeze. Sniffle.

Recent news reports have dangled a stratospherically priced option for wannabe cat owners who are allergic to the bewhisker-ed, twitchy-tailed set. Just plunk down $3,950 (plus a $995 processing and transportation fee) for a hypoallergenic Allerca cat. (For an extra $1,950 "premium placement" fee, you can jump the two-year waiting list and get one next spring.)

Or you can just buy a Siberian for about $700.

"Siberian breeders have already bred a hypoallergenic cat, but people tend not to believe breeders," says cat geneticist Leslie Lyons of the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis. "And now here comes a company that says the same thing. It all comes down to marketing."

San Diego-based Allerca has been on a quest to produce kitties with modified levels of Fel d 1, a glycoprotein found in saliva and skin that is a major allergy trigger. Two years ago, the company announced it would use "gene silencing" technology to disable the protein-producing gene.

But the settlement of a lawsuit alleging the usurping of proprietary information required Allerca to stop work on the genetic modification of its cats until June of this year. During this unforeseen hiatus, Allerca tests on the silenced gene coincidentally revealed that a related group of its test cats carried a genetic mutation that rendered them naturally hypoallergenic.

"We tested the protein they produced, and it appeared that these cats produce it at a different molecular weight," says Allerca founder Simon Brodie, noting that the company plans to publish a scientific paper on its findings next year. "Our assumption is the immune system simply does not recognize it."

Brodie says there are "probably cats in every population" that carry the naturally occurring sneeze-free gene, which is dominant and so relatively easy to have expressed in offspring. But because Allerca has patented the marker test for the gene, no one can definitively identify carriers without its consent.

The company also has its share of restrictions for customers: Potential Allerca cat owners are required to take two home allergy tests. The 12-week-old kittens will be microchipped, spayed or neutered and outfitted with Soft Paws nail caps before arriving at their new homes via private jet. Declawing voids any warranties as well as the accompanying year of free pet health insurance.

Allerca's Web site may say its cats are the first "scientifically proven" hypoallergenic cats, but "they are not the first -- Siberians have been (in the U.S.) since the early 1990s," says breeder Lynda Nelson of Kravchenko Siberians in Daytona Beach, Fla., adding that "almost all my sales are for some kind of allergy."

Like Allerca, which advises against buying one of its cats if you have "extreme sensitivity to cat allergen," Nelson says she warns uber-snufflers that her cats might still prompt a reaction. She says she's noticed that owners who have pulmonary symptoms do better with the cats than those who have skin outbreaks.

Jay Collins of Transsiberie Siberians in Portland, Ore., puts the breed's hypoallergenic status as "kinda sorta."

"My experience has been that 50 percent of allergic people are OK with them, and 50 percent are not," he says, adding that he wonders how much of the hypoallergenic effect is psychosomatic. "What I can kind of say is that I think it's diminished -- there's not as much allergic reaction as it would be with a regular cat, but some people still react."

Brodie -- who insists his mutant-gened cats are not from Siberian stock -- says he has been inundated with e-mails from Siberian lovers who accuse Allerca of being a high-priced copycat. "We've also heard from dozens of people who are allergic who have bought a Siberian purported to be hypoallergenic -- and had to return it two days later," he says.

Pam DelaBar, president of the Cat Fanciers' Association and a breeder of decidedly nonhypoallergenic Maine coons, notes that hypoallergenic cats, like antibacterial soap, may lead to a slippery path: Studies show that exposing children to cats and dogs -- and their attendant dander --during their first year of life makes them less susceptible to a wide spectrum of allergens.

Plus, she adds, there are already two other "fairly hypoallergenic" breeds: the Cornish rex and Devon rex. "Why go out and spend $4,000 on an unknown?" she asks. Unlike purebred cats, whose breeders know the ins and outs of their pedigrees, Allerca cats "don't have a history."

In the end, says Brodie, what Allerca offers is a sure thing. "If you're allergic to the extent that if you walk in a room with a cat you become full of welts and your skin is breaking out," he asks, "are you prepared to risk it?"

source - Business News