Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Is my cat "hairy" or furry"?

Collage of 7 different cat coat colors
Various cat coat colors and textures
What’s the difference between fur and hair? Is a pet with hair better for allergies than a pet with fur? These are the questions that sparked this article. Based on the amount of discussion about this topic, both here in the hospital and through email with friends, colleagues and family members, this year has been a particularly bad year for allergies, and people are looking to do whatever they can to feel better!

In 2001, Scientific American magazine interviewed Nancy Simons, a mammalogist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York about the difference between hair and fur. Her answer? There isn’t. Hair and fur are the same thing.

Microscopic images of cat and dyed human hair
A cat hair (top) compared to several human hairs (bottom)
Really, hair versus fur is a matter of semantics – it’s ALL hair. Hair is a defining characteristic of mammals. Even whales and dolphins have hair (usually just a few on their snout as babies). “Fur” is just one type of hair.  Both human hair and animal fur is made of the same stuff that makes up rhinoceros horn and our toenails – a protein called keratin. Cats’ whiskers and porcupine quills are special kinds of hairs. Even the strange scales on the back of a pangolin are specially adapted hairs. Just like in humans, hairs with round shafts are straight, and curly hairs are flattened to various degrees.
When talking about pet hair and specific breeds of cats and dogs, “fur” is usually used to refer to a double coat of hair that covers the entire body. “Hair” is usually a finer, softer, longer, single coat and - as in the case of humans, the Sphynx, and the Devon and Cornish Rex breeds of cat - may not cover all of the body.

An often-repeated humorous quotation (author unknown) about hair versus fur is:
Dogs and cats: If it's where it belongs (on the animal), it's fur; if it's where it doesn't belong (on your black slacks), it's hair.
            Humans: If it's where it belongs (on the top of your head), it's hair; if it's where it  
            doesn't belong (on your back), it's fur.

Crafting with Cat Hair: Cute Handicrafts to Make with your Cat by Kaori TsutayaMany people consider “hair” to be less allergenic than fur, but hair is not the culprit when it comes to allergies. The real culprits that stimulate allergic reactions are a number of proteins in a cat’s saliva and other glands in the body. They are deposited on the surface of the cat as he grooms and secreted from the sebaceous glands in the skin. These allergens mix with the surface of the skin and coat, and are then shed into the environment, naturally. It is true that some breeds that shed less and have finer hair are less likely to build up allergens within the coat and less likely to spread as much allergenic material in the environment, but even Sphynx cats groom themselves and have sebaceous glands, so are not truly allergy-free! For more information about why people are allergic to cats, stay tuned for our next blog article!

Meanwhile, if you are overwhelmed by your cat's shedding, you could put the cat hair to use!
Check out this book about crafting with cat hair or take a look at Flora Davis' cat hair jewelry.

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