NEW YORK -- A small California biotech company says it has successfully found the Holy Grail of the $35 billion pet industry: a hypoallergenic cat.
At the start of next year, the first kittens -- which the company calls ``lifestyle pets" -- will be delivered to eager owners who have been carefully screened and on a waiting list for more than two years. Since it announced the project in October 2004, Allerca of San Diego, says it has received inquiries from people in 85 countries seeking to buy a cat bred so that its glands do not produce the protein responsible for most human cat allergies.
If ordered now, it will take 12 to 15 months for delivery of a cat in the United States, 15 to 18 months in Europe. Cost: $4,000.
Buyers must also pass Allerca's finicky screening tests. Prospective buyers are interviewed for motivation and warmth, as though they were adopting a child. Will they punish the cat if it has an accident on the floor or scratches the furniture? Their families and homes -- from carpets to curtains -- also must be evaluated for allergies and allergens.
``You're not just buying a cat; it's a medical device that replaces shots and pills," said Megan Young, chief executive officer of Allerca. ``At the same time this is a living animal, so the well-being of our product comes before our customers. This is not some high-priced handbag that you put back on the shelf if it doesn't match."
In the United States and Europe, cats are the most common household pet -- there are an estimated 30 million in the United States alone -- and cat allergies are one of most common human allergies. That combination has made many homes cauldrons of sneezing, itchy conflicts, where a fiancé is allergic to a partner's favorite pet, or a mother-in-law can't come for a festive meal because Fluffy is present.
With cat owners paying thousands of dollars each year for allergy shots, antihistamines, and air filters to damp down allergies, $4,000 for a sneeze-free existence may be an acceptable price tag. Though more research is needed, preliminary independent studies suggest Allerca cats do not provoke allergies.
``As strange as it may sound, for us the price would have been worth it; it would have saved us money and saved us pain from all the medical and also emotional problems," said Christopher Cullen, of New York, whose girlfriend's worsening allergies this week forced them to put up for adoption their beloved cat, Cimbi -- a feline who had achieved ``mild Internet notoriety" as the star of her own website.
Cullen and his girlfriend, Cheryl Burley, have fought a losing two-year battle to engineer a tolerable coexistence with Cimbi, because Burley, a devoted cat lover, has had cat allergies since childhood. On www.harlemfur.com, you can watch Cullen, who works for the New York Senate Democratic Conference, giving Cimbi a bath to reduce her allergen load; he takes Cimbi on a leash to Morningside Park for a day to give his girlfriend's allergies a break.
The couple never put down carpets; they installed special air filters and vacuumed incessantly. But Burley's symptoms worsened in recent months, and that fragile equilibrium fell apart two weeks ago when they took in a second cat, Marley, which turned Burley's allergies from annoying to overwhelming. She couldn't work, couldn't breathe, and had a seizure.
``Our whole life has gone downhill -- I missed four days of work, I'm back on inhalers, eye drops, and creams," Burley said. ``This hypoallergenic cat would be a perfect solution for me. I'm determined to have a kitty."
Dr. Sheldon Spector, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles, recently studied the cats and said the concept seemed to work. Ten volunteers with severe cat allergies were exposed to a variety of cats but showed no reaction to the Allerca cats, though all had symptoms with normal animals.
``This is not a definitive study, but it is an interesting and intriguing concept that could really help people," Spector said.
For the moment, he said he would not recommend purchasing the cats because ``$4,000 seems like a lot of money," and there is the chance that some people may react to some degree to less common cat proteins. Most human cat allergies are caused by `` Fel d 1, " a molecule that has been sequenced and its gene mapped in the last decade. At first, Allerca scientists sought to discover a method to delete or disable the gene.
But in testing to see whether the gene had been effectively silenced, they made a fortuitous discovery: A very small number of cats carry a mutant gene that produces a modified protein, far less likely to induce allergies.