On December 12th, 2011, The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology published online a study titled “Risk factors for new-onset cat sensitization among adults“. It didn’t take long for Reuters to pick up the story and turn it into an article “Getting a Cat Ups Allergy Risk in Adults”.
From there, the so-called “news” caught like fire. Here are some headlines picked by Google News' search engine, out of the 121 results found for this news item -
“Getting Your First Cat? Be Prepared to Sneeze”
“Caution! Keeping Feline Pets Can Inspire Allergies”
“Even Adopting A Cat Can Be Hazardous To Your Health”
“Study warns against pet cats”
“Want a pet cat? Think again”
“Study: Cats Could Be Bad For Your Health, If You Let Them In Your Bedroom”
“Allergies? Give the cat back, study says”
“Don't get a cat if you have any allergies”
“Want a pet cat? Rethink for your health!”
“Fancy a pet cat? Think again... moggies 'double the risk' of developing allergies”
Seriously? May I offer some alternative headlines for this fiasco? How about “Heedless reporters cause cats to lose loving homes”? or “Shelter cats euthanized due to irresponsible headlines”?
Going back to the original research for a minute. It’s bad enough, actually. Apparently, researchers can be just as irresponsible in their conclusions as journalists -
I’m ok with the first sentence there. If you’re prone to cat allergy, getting a cat would increase your chances of actually developing it. Never be exposed to cats, and you may never know you’re prone to cat allergy. May is the key word here. Even without acquiring a cat, three percent of participants developed cat allergies (compared with five percent among those who did).
The next sentence is more problematic, but at least they worded it cautiously. Perhaps individuals with severe allergies should consider carefully if, how and what kind of a cat they’d like to introduce into their lives. By the way, the same research also showed that “cat ownership in childhood was a significant protective factor”. Children do not own cats. Their parents do. That means adults raising children should definitely consider adopting a cat, to boost their children’s immune system. In fact, that’s just about the only useful bit of information there, as far as I can see. That does not coincide with the offhand suggestion for “cat avoidance”.
My real beef is with the media though. Taking that one bit of research and applying scare tactics is simply irresponsible. I can only imagine how many people skimmed through those articles, or maybe just the headlines, and came away convinced that cats are dangerous for one’s health. Yes, cats can cause an allergic reaction in some people, but turning that into “Getting Your First Cat? Be Prepared to Sneeze”, or “Want a pet cat? Rethink for your health!” completely ignores the many proven Health Benefits of Cats while making an unsubstantiated blanket statement that will, alas, stick in people’s minds.
As always, those paying the price are cats. Who knows how many cats have lost their homes due to these harebrained articles. Who knows how many potential adopters decided to keep cats out of their home. This really makes me sad.