cat got your lung? life with cat allergies

Soundtrack in my head: George Clinton, “Atomic Dog”
Mask Dust Cheeky Cat Kids cat allergies
naobim / Pixabay

Since the age of three I’ve suffered from cat allergies. It was enough to throw me into the hospital three times as a toddler. We finally figured out that Butterscotch, our cat, was the main source of my misery, and we had to give him away. I have many other allergies as well, but too much exposure to cats can leave me wheezing and gasping for breath.

I bring this up because cat allergies have a huge impact on which co-op I can live in. Many co-ops admit members with cats or adopt cats themselves. Some co-ops keep the cats confined to the specific wing or floor where the owner’s room is. This worked nicely for me in my co-op three years ago, We had two cats, but as long they did not have the run of the whole house and I kept my bedroom door closed, it worked out fine.

But some co-ops cannot physically confine a cat to a specific floor because of the way the building is laid out. Others could, but choose not to, out of the belief that cats should be given as much freedom to roam as possible.

There are many people whose cat allergies are such that they can tolerate cats, but will get the sniffles. There are others whose immune systems are so intolerant of cats that they can almost never enter a building where a cat lives, even if the cat is confined to a floor away from the allergic person. Someone once told me they knew of four people in the co-ops unable to serve on Madison Community Co-op committees because they are severely allergic to cats and it would require them to walk into another co-op building cats live. I’m more in the middle—I can be in most cat places for a couple of hours, and can live in co-ops with cats as long as they don’t have access to the main common areas.

I applied for membership with a co-op recently that had accommodated people with cat allergies, but two weeks before my I began to go through the process of applying for membership, they admitted as a member someone, who, as a condition of her membership, insisted on letting her cat have the run of the whole house. The co-op voted to accept me as a member, but I told them I could not stay there if the cat continued to have the run of the house. Some people in the house thought it was a very reasonable accommodation, but when the votes were counted, they voted to continue to let the cat have the run of the house.

A few years before that, I applied for membership in a house where the cats did have the run of the whole house. I asked if the living room and dining room could be made cat-free, since those areas could be easily closed off from the rest of the house. The co-op said no. I’m not sure if that would have been enough anyway. During the interview, I was sitting on a the edge of a couch trying to have as little of my body touch the couch as possible due to it being covered with cat fur.

Seven of the eleven co-op houses in the Madison Community Co-op system are inaccessible to me as places where I could live. I’m not exactly sure how I should feel about that.

On one hand, Madison has instituted a smoking ban in all restaurants and bars. This exists in many cities around the world. I remember how, a number of years ago, a girlfriend of mine who was especially allergic to cigarette smoke had to abruptly leave the Metro Club in Chicago a number of years ago because the smoke was triggering her asthma. Laws like the one on the books in Madison were designed to protect people like her. Maybe it’s an issue of public access, and thus the co-ops should be making places accessible to everyone by making them cat-free.

But the difference is that while you can ask a smoker to extinguish a cigarette, you can’t ask a cat owner to extinguish their cat. Even if my body regards a cat as the equivalent of a constantly lit cigarette that eats and poops. (Actually I do better with cigarettes than cats.) My parents got rid of the family cat for my sake. But that’s because they’re my parents, and besides, now that I’ve moved out, they have two cats. A cat is part of the family (though when I see a picture on a bag of cat chow of a lady rubbing noses with her cat–I just want to say, “Gross!”) and as such, I can’t expect people who I’ve just met to give up a family member for my sake.

Like it or not, cat owners and me have conflicting interests, due to no fault of either of us. So we need to find a way to co-exist. I think that the best compromise arrived upon so far is the one struck by my house and other houses where cats to roam freely in certain wings of the house, but not have the run of the whole house. That compromise might keep out the most severely allergic, as well as cat owners who won’t settle for cat roaming grounds any smaller than the entire state of Texas. But it would likely make the most people happy. I’m disappointed that some of the co-ops that can make accommodations like these don’t.

Though a part of me wanted to stay mad at this other co-op, at least on principle, I quite simply couldn’t. I’m friendly with a number of people there, and the place has always felt like a second home to me. Plus, I like the direction that my co-op is going in, so maybe it’s best (perhaps Divine arrangement) that I stay where I am. I have two places that I feel at home with, one where I can live and the other where I can visit, I can’t really complain about how things turned out.

But that does not mean I’m about to let cat owners off the hook. Some of them are really understanding, but some live in abject denial about the impact their beloved Fluffy has on others. I’ve even had it suggested to me that my allergies would change if somehow I adopted a better attitude toward Fluffy. All I can say is that I apologize if gasping for air and oxygen deprivation don’t leave me with the best attitude.

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