Cats or Crack?


(06/12/13 —  In the light of recent events, it makes sense to note that this was written about ten years ago, the last time I had to change residences. That time was really sad. I lived in part of a basement apartment belonging to a young couple who were trying to buy this really cool house, but even with a bunch of housemates, it didn’t work out, and everybody had to scatter. If they’d been able to hold onto the place, I’d be there still. Also I should mention this was first published by the late lamented )


Here’s a dilemma. I’ve been offered the chance to share a house with my oldest woman friend. “Sounds good,” you may be thinking. “What’s the problem?”

The problem is, a couple of cats have resided in the house for years, and I’m hideously allergic to cats. What happens is straight out of a horror movie. My eyeballs melt. The sclera, the skin of the eye, swells and puddles in the outer corners. The sensation is exactly like a rogue eyelash, only in reverse. The eyeball oozes outward to meet the world, encountering other structures, including eyelashes, on its adventurous journey.

Sometimes, in an interesting variation, tiny blisters form on the narrow ledge between eyelashes and eyeball – the part where I have a confused memory of applying kohl-type makeup in my younger, much stupider days. The third thing that happens is a sensation like a two-inch spike driven through the eye socket into the brain. The fun is in never knowing which of the three tortures will manifest. They all have the same effect of being so annoying and distracting, I lose 50 IQ points. Even on a good day, I don’t have that many to spare.

Basically, an attack of cat allergy means being unable to concentrate on anything, or do any useful work. Or carry on even the most trivial conversation without snarling. It means banishment from life: lying down and sleeping until the episode is over. This is fine for a person who has nothing else to do, but unsuitable for one who, at any given time, has multiple artistic projects in the works. Not to mention the little matter of making a living. There may be methods of earning the daily bread that I don’t know about, but most of the ways I’ve heard of require being awake. Preferably, with all available IQ points present and accounted for.

Still, the notion of living with my favorite female human is very attractive. Nice place, out in the country, peaceful and quiet, and of course, good company. Except for the cats. Would it be possible, I wonder, to coexist with them? It’s definitely worth looking into. Let the research begin.

The main advice that’s out there for the cat-allergic is: don’t have cats. Well, duh. The next best thing is to re-purpose them as outdoor cats – which in most places will probably bring complaints from the neighbors. And from the cats, especially if they’ve been declawed to satisfy a landlord or preserve the furniture. “How am I supposed to protect myself?” they ask. Anyway, I doubt that Lynne would kick the cats out. After all, they were there first. Okay, how about keeping them out of the bedroom? Or confining them to only one room? That could work – except, this house is pretty old, and keeping the inside doors open is probably the only way to avoid freezing in winter or broiling in summer.

Here’s a piece of wisdom from the Department of LOL: Keep the cat off the upholstery. Yeah, right. Cats are so good at following orders. Though undeniably cuter, a cat is less trainable than a tapeworm. Like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, a cat sleeps wherever it damn well pleases. In terms of doability, keeping a cat off of anything is right up there with the squared circle and the perpetual motion machine. It ain’t happenin’.

Where cats choose to sit doesn’t really matter anyway, thanks to the remarkable properties of the thing that causes cat allergy. We used to think it was hair, and then we thought it was dander, but now we know the villain of this tragedy is a substance from the secretoglobin family, affectionately known as Fel d 1. It’s a protein, but not the kind you want to blend into a smoothie. It comes out of cats in their saliva, sweat, sebaceous glands, urine etc. A very large amount of it comes out of their faces, probably from the scent marking equipment located there. Male cats produce more of it than females, and un-neutered males produce more of it than anybody.

The real kicker here is, Fel d 1 totally debunks the cliché of feline cleanliness. The allergy problem is mostly due to their habit of licking themselves all the time. The Fel d 1 is transferred onto the millions of hairs that make up the fur, where it desiccates into billions of tiny flakes which disperse and float away to raise airborne hell. It’s as if the cat’s entire body was fiendishly designed to be the ideal biological warfare delivery system.

There’s a rumor that hairless cats are okay, but they’re not. And neither are “hypoallergenic” cats. Any cat that secretes saliva, oil, urine, or any other kind of liquidy gunk – in other words, any cat – will produce Fel d 1.

The little molecular crystals (or, perhaps, crystalline molecules) are teensie, much littler than mold spores or pollen grains, and thus heinously invasive and almost impossible to filter out. And Fel d 1 is notoriously sticky. It adheres to walls, ceilings, furniture, curtains, carpets, appliances, clothes hanging in the closet, shoes and boots, toys, light fixtures, game machines – in short, every surface and every crevice, everywhere in the house. And everywhere that’s not the house, too. Public places such as high-rise office suites, where no cat has ever set paw, can harbor enough Fel d 1 to strike down the susceptible.

If you live in a cat-free environment, and a cat-owning friend comes over to visit, your environment will be cat-free no more. Your friend will import Fel d 1, clinging to clothes, hair, skin, and shoes, and pretty soon your place will be plastered with toxin, bringing unwelcome events to your wretchedly allergic life.

And the stuff hangs around. Even when cats are removed from a home, the most optimistic forecast predicts that a noticeable amount of allergen remains embedded in everything for at least six months, and that’s despite vigorous removal efforts. Generally, it’s more like years. Which is one reason landlords are so mean. It’s not only the damage your cats are likely to inflict on the premises during the term of your lease. It’s the lingering essence that makes future tenants suffer in ways they didn’t ask for and certainly don’t deserve.

So, even in the unlikely event that Lynne would exile her cats to the great outdoors, making her house livable would mean getting rid of all the carpets and furniture. And the temporary removal of everything else, to make way for extreme cleaning of every surface. Somehow, I don’t think that’s in the cards. But I’m not ready to give up. Is there any possible way the cats and I could occupy the same segment of time-space continuum? With sufficient expenditure and effort, might it be done? Google brings up a new sequence of web pages, full of advice from experts.

Buy a HEPA vacuum cleaner for $800-$1200, plus whatever it costs to periodically replace bags, filters, etc. These high-class machines are the only kind capable of trapping the infinitesimally small Fel d 1 particles. Throw in a few extra bucks for the masks and goggles to wear while vacuuming, because the activity stirs up the latent crap and distributes it through the air. And remember to keep the protective gear in place while replacing the bags and filters, or cleaning the parts, or whatever other maintenance the device needs, which entails wallowing in clouds of Fel d 1. Vacuum every day, or at the very least, twice a week. Hit the floors, whether carpeted or bare, the walls, the ceiling, the curtains, and the furniture. This of course involves much switching around of the various custom wands adapted for different surfaces and configurations. And of course before vacuuming, you dusted with damp rags. Which now have to be washed.

Buy an air purifier for $500-$800, plus, on a regular basis, replacement filters at $80 to $150 a pop. Find a place to put the air purifier, which should not be on the floor. You can get just one, for the most vital room, but there really should be one in every room. Working against them is the action of the heating and air conditioning systems, if you are lucky enough to have such things, which move air throughout the house. The solution? Cover the heat vents with layer upon layer of cheesecloth. Which needs to be bought, cut, shaped, secured into place, and regularly replaced. And keep the litter box or boxes in an area unconnected to the air supply for the rest of the home – where would that be? And install a cat flap, so the animals can get in and out of their special toilet room.

Then the search engine turns up a study where some participants used air-cleaning machines with actual filters, and the rest had air-cleaning machines with no filters. In other words, they were the control group, with placebo air-cleaning machines. Results: The levels of allergens floating around in the air were reduced – but – there was no difference in the settled-dust levels, or in the symptoms experienced by the allergic people. In other words, this study indicates that, where cat allergy is concerned, air cleaners amount to nothing more than noisy, energy-consuming, expensive, useless knick-knacks.

You also need a vapor steam cleaner, available for $500 – $1800. The upscale model is accompanied by a bewildering array of accessories designed to disinfect various surfaces. To use the machine requires training, so it comes with a DVD that gives directions for every kind of cleaning task, plus an instruction manual to back up the DVD, and a cheat sheet to back up the instruction manual. What you’re supposed to do with this thing is regularly clean every surface – floors, walls, ceiling, furniture, appliances, curtains, windows, etc. The instructions courteously remind you not to forget the ceiling fans, which gather deposits of Fel d 1 on the blades and then disperse them into the air when the fan goes around. If you don’t already have a ladder, go out and buy one. And check your insurance policy for the specifics concerning self-inflicted injuries sustained while clambering up there to steam-clean the ceiling fan.

Here’s where I start to have real problems with the whole concept. Any place I’m likely to inhabit will have many square yards of paintings on the walls. I doubt that steam-cleaning is good for them. Any place I’m likely to inhabit will contain many cubic feet of books on shelves. Steam-cleaning is probably not beneficial for them, either. Any place I’m likely to live is going to have a computer, monitor, keyboard, printer, and scanner. I’m not totally confident that steam-cleaning is healthy for any of those items, either.

And what about the cats? They, of course, have to be cleaned too. You’re supposed to buy special cloths permeated with something or other, and wipe down their fur every day. And special shampoo to bathe them in once a week, using distilled water only, because tap water also leaves residue on the fur. (Just ignore that other expert who says none of these measures do a damn bit of good.) Since you’re allergic to Fel d 1, before washing the cats, you’ll need to suit up – mask and gloves, which also cost money, last time I checked. And after the grooming and bathing are done, just like after refurbishing the litter box, it’s a shower and a complete change of clothing for you. Your clothes, like your bedding, need to be washed with special allergen-killing laundry detergent, in 140-degree water, if you are lucky enough to own a washing machine and a water heater capable of producing water at such a temperature.

That’s not all. There’s even more stuff you can buy, such as denaturing sprays to use on the upholstered furniture and drapes, if you are foolish enough keep those things. The best way is to replace all soft furniture with hard, smooth-surfaced chairs and couches made of cleanable material such as plastic. And replace curtains and drapes with blinds, whose surfaces don’t collect so much Fel d 1. Of course, you must buy special, ultra-engineered, non-trivially-priced food for your cats, which is said to reduce the amount of allergens generated by their little bodies.

So we’re looking at an initial investment of many, many dollars, with additional supplies and replacement parts to be purchased as needed. In my particular case, supposing I managed to convince Lynne to throw out all her carpets, upholstered furniture, and curtains, there would still be the question of how I, living in a rural area without a car, would get hold of all the gizmos and liquids and filters.

And that’s not even considering the time eaten up by all this shopping and vacuuming and steam-cleaning and cat-washing: daily, constant, unremitting labor. If only I weren’t cat-allergic! Well, maybe I don’t have to be. I once went to a seminar on conflict resolution, that broke it down into three possibilities.

One: Change the other person (that would be Lynne, hypnotized by my irresistible charm into ditching the cats and/or most of her belongings. Do you see this happening? I don’t.)

Two: Change the environment (buy thousands of dollars worth of gear, and do hundreds of hours of work per year.)

Three: change yourself. So, back to the quest, this time looking for ways not to be allergic to cats.

There are over-the-counter antihistamine preparations which, going by my past experience, do little more than dry out the mucous membranes and cause sleepiness. No good. Some authorities propose green tea, mangosteen juice, and numerous other nutritional and herbal remedies which I’m perfectly willing to try. Plus, they have the added advantage of being the only ones I could hope to afford, on the budget of a starving artist. But what if they didn’t work? Then, I’d be a starving artist stuck out in the country with creatures that made me feel like hell. Not a good bet.

Allegedly, a person’s immune system can be trained out of cat allergy by injections, 25 of them over a three-month period, or, according to another source, weekly for four to six months. Followed by monthly injections for several years. And the treatment doesn’t always work, and sometimes the shots cause horrible reactions. Besides, how would a person without a car, in a rural area, manage all those trips to the doctor, located no doubt in some distant large city? Even supposing a person could afford it. And if that person is me, forget it. My unwillingness to get involved with the medical establishment ranks right up there with my unwillingness to get involved with the justice system. Having successfully avoided both of them for years, I plan to continue doing so.

In the late nineties, there was some talk of a vaccine to end cat allergy but, like so many promising medical discoveries, it seems to have disappeared before full development. Then there’s the appealingly-named SLIT therapy, which involves placing drops of liquid cat-allergen under the tongue. This was said to be effective in slightly over half the experimental subjects, of whom there weren’t very many in the first place. Other studies say it works no better than a placebo, and side effects can be as bad as the allergy itself. At any rate, this therapeutic modality doesn’t seem to have hit the market yet.

Then you’ve got your Energy Based Allergy Elimination, in which the practitioner holds a vial of Fel d 1 in one hand while adjusting the patient’s various acupuncture points with the other. Hmmm. Similar is the self-administered therapy known as EFT, where the afflicted person goes through a complicated ritual of repeated affirmations while tapping on the end points of the body’s energy meridians, as well as sundry other maneuvers.

What amazes me is that people are willing to do any or all of these things so they can have cats around the place. If the purpose of so much expense and effort were to keep a chronically ill child alive, or to care for a beloved partner, well, that would be different. But just for the privilege of living with cats? I don’t think so. If I’m going to adopt a habit that requires the equivalent of a full-time job’s work-week, and the expenditure of thousands of dollars, I’ll take crack.


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