April 14, 2008 -- 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.
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.
Paul Williams of Florida also was denied a cat because of his allergy test. Brodie told him that he could get a refund or "keep his place in the waiting list" for the next generation of kittens (which would presumably be more hypoallergenic).
"This is an emotional thing for a lot of people," Williams said. "If anyone is crazy enough to spend $5,000 on a cat, they are crazy enough to wait another year…[Brodie] could let it go for years…he doesn't actually have to deliver any cats."
Meanwhile, the scientific community is waiting to see proof. Dr. Sheldon Spector, a clinical professor at the UCLA school of medicine, is the only unaffiliated scientist to have tested Allerca cats. Spector said he wanted to follow up on the study with more cats (he tested only one) and more cat-allergic people (there were nine), but that Allerca wasn't interested.
Leslie Lyons, a geneticist and associate professor at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, believes Allerca's claims are feasible.
"There probably are some cats that naturally create a lower allergy response," she said. "In order to prove it, they certainly need some type of human trial."
Dr. Robert Wood, director of pediatric allergy and immunology at Johns Hopkins University, agreed that hypoallergenic cats are possible but not yet proven.
"There's some reality to it, but they have not been studied in a way that we could tell a patient that it would protect them from allergic reactions," he said.
He also noted that the placebo affect can play a large role in allergies, especially if a premium price is involved. "If you've dropped $31,000 on a cat, odds are you're going to think it's good for your allergies," Wood said.
If Allerca makes you wary, there are alternatives.
Lundberg, who breeds Siberian cats, said roughly half of his animals in Oregon produce "little to no reactions" in allergic visitors and adopters.
Cliff Reuter, also of Oregon, said he had cat allergies for years, but wasn't bothered by Lundberg's cats.
"[Tom] held the cat up and I rubbed my face in it," Reuter said. "I had no hives, just the littlest bit of itchy eyes."
Alice Fredericks of California also had success with Lundberg's Siberians. "These cats are really nothing on my allergy radar," she said.
Still, Siberians are expensive, with prices ranging from $650 to $1,200. And they don't work for everyone.
After Allerca's rejection, Butler and her husband in New Jersey tried Siberians with no luck. Finally, they fostered shelter cats until they found one that didn't bother his allergies.
"The truth is, there's incredible range," Butler said. "My husband is very allergic to some cats, allergic to most cats, but only slightly to some. I don't doubt that you'll be able to find individual pairs of cats and people."
Johns Hopkins' Wood confirmed that there can be up to a thousand-fold difference in cat allergen levels from one household to another.
Allergic feline lovers may have to wait for hypoallergenic cats to become a reliable reality. And those who can't wait might want to just sniff one out the old-fashioned way.