Allergy-Free Cats: Fact or Fiction?

Would you pay $35,000 for a cat?

Some people do -- specifically, those with money to burn, a fervent love of cats and a bad case of allergies.

A company called Allerca said two years ago it had developed the world's first hypoallergenic cat. For many cat lovers, businessmen and breeders, this had been a quest of holy-grail proportions.

A joyous media frenzy ensued, but debate remains as to whether the felines are for real.

After Allerca's announcement, eager-but-allergic cat lovers sent in their deposits. The cats' initial price tag was about $4,000. Since then, it has been bumped up to almost $6,000, with a Siamese variation going for $10,900 and an exotic "wild cat" version that costs $35,000.

Despite the cost, cat lovers rejoiced. "I was quite excited at the possibility of a breakthrough in [cat allergy] research, and the promise it holds for children who have been unable to have or hold a cat," Oregon cat breeder Tom Lundberg wrote in an e-mail, although he noted that he has since developed concerns about the project.

Some were never optimistic.

"There's no such thing as a hypoallergenic cat," said Dr. David Avner, an emergency room doctor at Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree, Colo., and president of Felix Pets, a rival company of Allerca's. "I've been in the field long enough."

Avner has studied the key feline protein that triggers the allergic reaction and concluded the only way to eliminate it was to "turn off" the gene by genetically modifying the cats. He has yet to produce a hypoallergenic cat.

Avner said a businessman named Simon Brodie approached him years ago with a proposal to start an allergen-free pet business with Avner's research. After about a year, he said that Brodie "cut and run" with Avner's information to start Allerca.

Brodie disagrees with that account, saying that he attempted to leave Avner on good terms, offering him "three percent of his new company." A court case ensued, which ended in a settlement in which Brodie agreed to delay Allerca's marketing ventures until after May 2006; both parties remain at odds.

Brodie's company has not published its research in any peer-reviewed journals, and will not reveal details on its facilities and practices.

Happy Customers?

Even if Allerca is rooted in controversy, the burning issue for cat lovers is whether the company actually delivers on its promise.

Dr. Erik Viirre, an ear, nose and throat specialist in San Diego, said that after a two-year waiting period, his family received an Allerca cat. He said that because of his allergies, they were unable to have a cat until "Jet" came along.

Judy Smith of Westwood, Mass., also raved about her Allerca cat, although she waited about a year and a month to get "Kiki."

"I know all the controversy surrounding [Allerca] and, well, I'm a happy customer," Smith said.

But it seems that for every happy Allerca customer, there is an unhappy one.

Lynne Butler of New Jersey never got her Allerca cat. She paid via the company's online checkout system that allows customers to pay the $1,000 price directly from home.

A year later, Allerca denied Butler a cat, claiming that her husband's allergy test (required of all potential Allerca customers) was too high for him to tolerate even a hypoallergenic cat. They requested a refund, she said, but only received it after she notified Allerca that she had talked to a journalist (Kerry Grens with The Scientist) about her experience.

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