Hypoallergenic cats: Bioengineering pets for humans’ benefit brings up ethical questions

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Scientists are looking at ways to dampen or eliminate “Fel d 1,” a protein in all cats that cause allergies for some people. Photo by Riccardo Agazzi.

What if you could genetically engineer an allergen-free cat — and dodge the sneezing, runny nose, and itchy and watery eyes that they cause? Scientists are now using biotechnology to try to make cats hypoallergenic. 

A protein called “Fel d 1,” which is in all cats’ saliva and oil glands, causes allergies, and it can get on furniture and in the air when they groom themselves, explains Sarah Zhang, science writer for The Atlantic. Some cats might shed 100 times more of Fel d 1 than others, and males tend to shed more than females, so neutering cats makes them less allergenic, she adds. 

It’s unclear what Fel d 1 does for cats, she says. 

A few years ago, one company claimed that it bred a hypoallergenic cat, but that was a scam and the company dissolved, Zhang points out. Some people who got this particular breed still experienced allergies, and others paid thousands of dollars upfront and never got the cat. 

“A truly allergy-free cat is a myth. … Certain breeds maybe make slightly less of this protein than others. ... But pretty much every single cat makes this protein.”

Now scientists are trying to dampen this protein so it’s less potent for humans. 

Cats can get a certain vaccine that makes its body think Fel d 1 is a virus, and scientists in Switzerland found that after several weeks, the levels of the protein dropped once the cats’ immune systems started attacking it. 

“They found that allergic cat owners were able to spend more time petting their cats once they've been vaccinated. And the company that’s behind it is now kind of in the process of gathering the data to go through regulatory approval. … This is a vaccine for cats, but it's really meant to treat humans, so who is supposed to regulate it?”

There’s also the gene editing technology CRISPR, which scientists have used on cat cells in a petri dish so they’d stop producing Fel d 1, Zhang says. “The company behind this is interested in essentially making a gene therapy. So this would be a shot that you maybe get for your cat … once every few months [or] … once a year that reduces the level of this protein.” 

Nestle also says it has a cat kibble that's coated in an antibody from egg yolks to counteract Fel d 1. The brand is Purina Pro Plan LiveClear.

“When cats eat this kibble, the antibody on that kibble kind of gets in their mouth and neutralizes the allergens in their saliva. So it doesn't work right away. It's not like you can feed this to them one day, and they'll stop shedding this protein the next day. But over the course of several weeks, it does seem to decrease the amount of this protein they are shedding by about half,” says Zhang.

All this brings up the ethical quandary: Humans are trying to alter a cat’s biology for our own benefit, and we don’t know if this helps or harms the animal. 

“This quandary is at the crux of a lot of things we do to our cats, right? Like it used to be that people would declaw their cats. And now that's really no longer acceptable. Of course, we still neuter our cats, and that makes them easier to keep in the apartment because … they’re not trying to find mates all the time. But obviously, that's a surgery, and that comes with risks as well, and it really changes the behavior of the cats.”

She adds, “This is really part of our long relationship to our pets, where we’re shaping them to our desires. And sometimes it can be to the detriment [of] the individual animal, but also what if it means we love our cats more, and we spend more time with them? Does that give them a better life? I think there's a lot to be probed about our relationship to our pets, and what we want out of them.”

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