Hypo is the Latin word for low, deficient or insufficient.
When hypo is combined with allergenic it forms an adjective, which is defined as having a decreased tendency to provoke an allergic reaction.
By Nial Thomson for Bengals Illustrated
There does seem to be a consensus among Bengal cat breeders that Bengals produce either no reaction, or a reduced reaction in people who are known to suffer from cat dander allergies. So why is that? I have my theory, but first let’s find out exactly what causes some folks to have an allergic reaction to a cat.
The simple answer is dander.
Cat dander consists of microscopic pieces of dry cat skin and dried saliva. Cat dander particles are tiny, about one-tenth the size of dust mites. These dander particles easily become airborne and will quickly be present throughout a home where a cat resides. The problem isn’t really the dry skin particles themselves, but a glycoprotein in and on the dander, called Fel D1. Fel D1 is found in a cat’s sebaceous glands under the skin and in a cat’s saliva. This protein is the culprit for susceptible people who are exposed to it. They come into contact with a cat or an environment housing cats and their immune system is launched, which then releases an inflammatory chemical known as histamine. Typical reactions include sneezing, runny nose, congestion, itchy eyes, rash or hives and for those severely affected, asthma attacks.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence from breeders and pet owners alike, suggesting that Bengal cats are more easily tolerated by those afflicted with allergies. To my knowledge there has never been a scientific study done to determine if Bengals produce less Fel D1 than other breeds of cats, but that is certainly in the realm of possibilities. Myself, being someone who is mildly allergic to cats, but has no reaction to Bengals, I have my own theory as to why this is.
The Bengal cat is blessed with a very short pelt-like coat that requires little or no maintenance from the cat’s owner. The Bengal cat can maintain its coat with much less grooming than many other breeds of cat, and it has been my observation that grooming is less frequent, and the sessions are shorter in duration. This leaves less saliva to dry on the hair to ultimately become dander. In addition, in a normal household situation, healthy Bengal cats shed considerably less than other breeds. This lack of shedding, keeps dander that is still attached to the hair shaft from spreading as easily throughout the home.
Several years ago I received a call from a woman who had heard that Bengal cats were hypoallergenic. She wanted to get a cat as a family pet, but her eight year old son was very reactive to cats and would break out in hives within five minutes of coming in contact with one. I cautioned this woman that Bengal cats are not allergen free and that her son may very well still break out. She insisted on coming over, with her son, to test it out. We herded the majority of the Bengals into another room and had the boy sit on the floor with just a couple of cats to pet, while we waited to see if he would start itching. Fifteen minutes passed and he was happily playing with the cats, reaction free. The mother was delighted and asked if all the cats could come out, as she removed the boy’s shirt. For the next hour her son basically wallowed around the floor, shirtless with the Bengals, and did not have even a hint of an allergic reaction.
On the other hand, the owner of the pet food store, where I buy our cat food, wasn’t as lucky as the boy. She had never seen a Bengal in person before, so one day I brought one of our cats in to visit. She had mentioned that she was allergic to cats and her reaction was always sneezing and congestion. She marveled at how gorgeous the cat was and pet him quite a bit. Sure enough she soon started to feel congested and got that need to sneeze sensation. Even though she stated her reaction was less severe than normal and there was no full blown sneezing attack, it was clear that in her case a Bengal cat would still cause her to suffer.
In conclusion, I think we can say that Bengal cats are hypoallergenic if you go by the true definition of the word. They do seem to invoke less of a reaction in allergy sufferers. However, breeders should not embrace the term, using it in advertising and to describe the Bengal cat, because Joe Public has been led to believe that hypoallergenic means allergen free.
Perhaps one day there will be a study to determine Fel D1 levels in Bengal cats and more light can be shed on exactly why this breed appears to be less allergenic than others.