I have always been allergic to cats. I know this because after touching a cat I’d start sniffling and sneezing and my eyes would get red and itchy; and if a cat scratched me, I’d get a big welt on my skin. This happened enough times that the pattern was pretty apparent. In my mid-20s, for reasons I’ve never quite understood, I decided to get a cat anyway. Sure enough, I experienced the usual cat-allergy symptoms, and my cat liked to make sure I achieved maximum dander exposure by sleeping on my pillow. But for the most part, the problem was not severe, and if I was careful to wash my hands after touching the cat, I was usually fine. Several months ago, I decided to become a cat owner once again, and Morgen and I adopted an adorable kitten named Zora. This cat’s favorite pastime is licking my face, and of course there are cat hairs all over the place. And yet, despite having much more contact with this cat, I’ve never had any hints of an allergic reaction.
There are several possible explanations for the seeming disappearance of my allergy. Cat allergies are caused by a protein called Fel d 1, which is secreted by the sebaceous glands and appears in the fur as well as in the saliva (and thus in the dander). Kittens tend to produce less of this protein than adult cats, and females tend to produce less than males. In addition, the levels of Fel d 1 can vary from breed to breed, from cat to cat within a litter, and over time in a given cat. Thus, it’s entirely possible that I just got lucky, and that this female kitten’s Fel d 1 level just happens to be low enough that it doesn’t trigger my allergies—so far, at least. On the other hand, we’ve had visitors in our home who did experience allergic reactions to our cat, so maybe my allergy has diminished after all.
Some people, however, desperately want feline companionship but have such strong allergic reactions to cats that they could never consider owning one. Apparently there are enough such people that a biotechnology company is attempting to produce a genetically modified hypoallergenic cat—and expecting to make a great deal of money from their creation. A company called Felix Pets believes they can produce cats with such low levels of Fel d 1 that most allergy sufferers would experience no symptoms. Because they’re at an early stage in their research, they’re unwilling to say exactly when these pets will be available or at what cost, but interest is apparently very strong. Last year another company, Allerca, boldly claimed it would be selling hypoallergenic cats in 2007 at the bargain price of US$3,500 each—and even began taking deposits—but their cat-modification operation was shut down due to a legal dispute with Transgenic Pets, the parent company of Felix Pets. Allergists, meanwhile, point out that other substances besides Fel d 1 can contribute to cat allergies, so even in the most optimistic scenario, the modified cat breed would help only a subset of people with cat allergies.
Lest you think the idea of genetically engineered pets is pure fantasy, consider that a company called YorkTown Technologies is already selling one: GloFish, a glow-in-the-dark zebra fish you can add to your home aquarium for about $5.00. To create the GloFish, researchers added naturally occurring genes from fluorescent organisms such as jellyfish and sea coral to the zebra fish’s genome. Different genes produced fish that glowed in different colors; those commercially available in the U.S. today have a reddish glow. Interestingly, though, the GloFish was merely a spin-off from a project designed to monitor pollution—the main purpose of the project has always been to create a fish that would fluoresce in the presence of certain pollutants, and the always-glowing fish was just one step in that process. A portion of the money received from their commercial sale benefits the ongoing development of variants to be used for environmental study.
Needless to say, some people are deeply concerned about the notion of making genetically modified pets. A number of questions are being raised: Could this be harmful to the animals? What if these animals escape into the wild and breed with their nonmodified counterparts? What if they are consumed (by humans or other animals)? What are the ethical implications? Will this lead to designer humans? And so on. But not all the questions are fueled by worry. Even more people are asking when they can have a hypoallergenic dog, or even wackier hypothetical genetic manipulations—a cat that talks like a parrot or that never sheds, a miniature giraffe or elephant that can live indoors, a glow-in-the-dark ferret.
Genetically engineered pets may be the latest rage, but designer pets—particularly cats and dogs selectively bred for characteristics such as hair length or color, height, or temperament—have gone in and out of style for a long time. Whatever else can be said about genetic engineering, I think style is a particularly bad reason to create a new animal, whether through natural means or otherwise. I admit to a certain amount of sympathy toward the notion of hypoallergenic pets—I’m imagining, for example, a visually impaired person who’d love to have a guide dog but can’t, due to allergies. But only time will tell how far this process will go before science, politics, or a fickle public creates insurmountable barriers. In the meantime, be very careful: I hear hypoallergenic cats love to eat glow-in-the-dark fish. —Joe Kissell
UPDATE: According to a report in New Scientist (June 9, 2006) Allerca has changed its strategy and now plans to use conventional selective breeding techniques, rather than genetic engineering, to deliver cats with little or no Fel d 1. The cats are still expected to be available in 2007, and the price has not decreased.