A small biotech company earned global acclaim when it announced it had produced the world's first scientifically proven hypoallergenic cat. But while it seemed like a godsend to feline fanatics with allergies, an ABC's "The Lookout" investigation explored allegations that company's cats are no more hypoallergenic than other cats.
In 2006, Allerca: Lifestyle Pets, aimed to fill the niche for pet lovers plagued by allergies and touted what it billed as the world's first scientifically proven, hypoallergenic cat.
Despite price tags ranging from nearly $4,000 to $28,000, Allerca had year-long wait lists for its felines.
However, experts and several customers contested the company's claims the cats were hypoallergenic and claims of Simon Brodie, the founder of Allerca. Other customers complained that they paid thousands for an Allerca cat that they never received.
Scientists have concluded that the main reason cats can trigger allergic reactions is a protein found in their saliva and skin called Fel d1. Allerca's website acknowledged that fact but said its cats had a naturally-occurring mutation, adding that its kittens "do continue to express Fel d1, (the known allergen that is present in saliva, fur, dander etc.) but at a different molecular weight. In human exposure tests, and with further feedback from our clients ... this molecular weight does not trigger allergies in the same way that 'normal' Fel d1 does.
However, one woman who spoke to ABC's "The Lookout" team said she spent thousands of dollars on Allerca cats, but her children were so allergic that she was forced to give them away. Other people also claimed they received their "hypoallergenic" cats, but the cats still made them wheeze and itch.
Indoor Biotechnologies, an immunodiagnostics and biotechnology company specializing in allergy, asthma and indoor air quality, conducted a study using hair samples from these cats provided by "The Lookout" team and found that "[Allerca's] claim is based on that the Fel d 1 allergen [four Allerca] cats produce is somehow different than that perhaps of normal cats. ... That difference is something that we weren't able to show when we look at the immune response of allergic patients."
Despite Allerca's claims that its cats are less likely to trigger allergies, with a 96 percent success rate, Indoor Biotechnologies found that the four Allerca cats it tested, including two from owners who thought their cats did cause fewer allergic reactions, were no more hypoallergenic than other cats.
Another Allerca customer told "The Lookout" team that he was still waiting for his cat despite purchasing it years ago. He recounted wiring Brodie $4,000 in October 2008, "and he scheduled a delivery date one or two weeks later and the cat did not arrive, and he scheduled another delivery date for the cat one or two weeks later and the cat did not arrive."
However, according to Brodie, each customer was aware of the terms and conditions of the sales agreement, which is "that an order is non-cancelable, non-refundable and that there is no time limitation on the business' obligation to deliver a pet."
The Santa Cruz, Calif., District Attorney's Office told ABC News that 25 customers had lodged complaints against Brodie, but the office has not brought an action against him because the office hasn't been able to find him.
"The Lookout" team spent months tracking down Brodie and discovered him in London. When asked about his business, Brodie still attested to "providing cats that work. We have hundreds of cats that are out there ... and if it doesn't work, we have a 30-day return policy."
He also sent a DNA report from 2006 performed on three cats to back his claims. However, when "The Lookout" team tracked down the scientist who ran the test, the scientist said that the report did not provide sufficient evidence to support Brodie's claims that the cats were hypoallergenic.
The team also got the same response from the scientist who ran the human exposure test found on Allerca's website.
Brodie also provided ABC News with five names of his happy customers, and while "The Lookout" team was only able to reach four of them, each pet owner said they were very satisfied with their Allerca cats.