October 7, 2006
IT IS A TRUTH universally acknowledged that cats make some people sick. As a person who would no sooner pet a cat than stick her hand in a tree shredder, I consider this a law of nature.
But it seems that cats may be going nature one better. Starting early next year, a San Diego company called Allerca will introduce the world's first hypoallergenic cat. Dubbed the "Allerca GD" (for "genetically divergent"), this cat is the result of scientists isolating the feline gene that produces the protein that causes most human allergies. In ongoing trials led by UCLA allergist Dr. Sheldon Spector, appropriately altered cats proved non-bothersome to people with clinically diagnosed cat allergies.
Allerca is not a biotech company but, according to Chief Executive Megan Young, a "lifestyle pet company" that is "taking breeding to the next level." According to Allerca's website, the cats — which have medium-length hair and come in the same colors and patterns as normal cats — are the result of using "sophisticated bioinformatics to manage feline breeding programs." The price? $3,950 each.
Don't get excited yet. There's already a long waiting list. "If you ordered today, you'd have a kitten in about 15 months," Young told me on Tuesday (who knows how long the wait will be by the time you finish reading this column). Though the company isn't sure exactly when the first cats will be ready — "It's up to Mother Nature," Young said — it expects to make deliveries in the first quarter of 2007 and to build up the breeding pool to several dozen by next summer. All Allerca cats will be delivered when they are 12 weeks old and will be already spayed or neutered. They come with a year of veterinary insurance, nail caps called Soft Paws — "We want to discourage declawing," Young said — and a "certificate of authenticity" that bears an image of the divergent gene sequence.
Is this creepy or miraculous? Like a lot of animal-loving allergy sufferers, I'm more than a little intrigued by the idea of having a cat that won't send me to the emergency room, even if that cat costs more than a used Toyota. But like a lot of animal-loving rational human beings, I'm philosophically opposed to the deliberate breeding of already plentiful animals (OK when it comes to pandas, not OK for dogs and cats).
The Humane Society estimates that 3 million to 4 million cats go into shelters every year, about half of which will be euthanized. And although it has no stated policy on breeding and doesn't know much about Allerca beyond what's on its website, Outreach Director Stephanie Shain says the organization plans to keep an eye on the company.
"Anytime we hear about someone tinkering with animals in a laboratory setting, we think we should know more about it," Shain said. "Our immediate concern is how are they creating these animals and what are the conditions the cats are kept in."
Young says Allerca's breeding facilities are "barrier-free" and staffed by experienced animal husbandry experts as well as "professional animal socializers" who play with the cats and get them accustomed to children as well as other pets. Moreover, customers must submit to environmental and body allergy testing before they can buy an Allerca cat. If allergen levels in the home are above a certain threshold, they have to steam clean and retest. If body levels are too high, as is the case in a small minority, they won't get a kitten.
"Our product is more important than our customers," Young said. "We want to make sure the cats are going to a loving home. These are not the latest designer handbags that you show off to your friends."
I should say not. Still, no matter how thoughtful the process and how protective Allerca is of the cats, the phenomenon bothers me. Why? Because I want a GD cat even though I don't know if I — or anyone — should have one. If the laws of nature say no, does technology have the right to say yes?
Fortunately, I don't have $4,000 to spare, so this is not a dilemma I'll be facing anytime soon. But that could change. Allerca is planning to make a major announcement next year about a new (non-hypoallergenic) lifestyle pet.
"I can't say much," Young said, "but I can tell you it's exciting and it's beautiful."
Finally! A koala bear that uses a litter box and will fetch the newspaper! I'm signing up right now.
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