Taking charge of allergies

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: How to Lick Cat Allergies / View Guide

Directions for teachers:

Use this exercise to help your students improve their problem-solving skills. The article “How to lick cat allergies,” explains how science can help fend off cat allergies. With cat allergies as an example, students will brainstorm solutions for other allergies. Students will identify the allergen responsible, how the allergen is spread to humans and what background knowledge would help fight the allergen.

Students should read the article and answer the first set of questions individually. Then have students partner up to compare their answers and apply their thinking to a new allergen. Come together as a class to discuss the solutions that students devised.

Directions for students:

Define the problem, allergen and treatment

Read the article “How to lick cat allergies,” and review the chart “Allergy treatments” to answer the following questions. 

1. What is the overarching problem that the treatments discussed are trying to solve? 

The treatments are trying to prevent or block humans’ allergic response to cats.

2. What is the allergen, and how is it produced? How does the allergen reach humans?

Scientists believe the main allergen is the protein Fel d1, which is produced in cats’ salivary and sebaceous glands and found in flakes of dead skin. When a cat licks its fur, the protein is spread to its hair, which is then shed and transferred to humans.

3. For each treatment mentioned in the article, answer the following questions:

Does the treatment target the human or cat?

How does the treatment attempt to solve the problem? (For example, does it treat a symptom, stop the production of the allergen, interfere with the allergic response or work through some other mechanism?)

What background information do you think scientists need or needed to develop the treatment?


This treatment targets the human and alters one aspect of the body’s immune response. Scientists needed to understand the role of histamines in the allergic response and how they are produced in order to create this treatment.

Nasal steroids:

This treatment targets the human. It doesn’t block the allergic response itself but treats a symptom of the allergies. Scientists needed to understand what triggers inflammation and how to stop or calm it.

Traditional allergy shots:

This treatment targets the human. It attempts to retrain the human body to be less sensitive to the allergen. Scientists needed to understand what allergen was responsible and how best to administer it, but the mechanism by which the retraining works is still not known.

Lab-made antibodies:

This treatment targets the human by attempting to make the allergen unrecognizable. The antibody masks or alters the structure of the allergen. Scientists need to understand the allergen and its chemical and physical properties to determine a complementary substance, as well as understanding what substances might be safe for the human.

Pet food with antibodies:

This treatment targets the cat by attempting to mask or alter the allergen, thus making it unrecognizable, before it reaches the human. Scientists need to understand the chemical and physical properties of the allergen to determine a complementary substance and to understand what substances are safe for cats. 

Vaccine for cats:

This treatment targets the cat. It encourages the cat to produce a complementary substance that masks or alters the structure of the allergen. Scientists need to understand how the allergen can be altered by the cat’s immune system, while keeping the cat safe.

Genetic engineering:

This treatment targets the cat. It would stop the production of the allergen in a cat by altering the cat’s gene activity. Scientists need to understand what genes are responsible for producing the allergen and what other role these genes have. Scientists also need the tools to modify those genes or their activity.

Group and categorize 

Compare your answers with a partner. Discuss which treatments are similar and why. Group them into categories based on their similarities. Once the treatments are grouped, give each group a “category name” that describes the set of approaches. Then answer the questions that follow.

1. Category Name: 
Treatments within category: 

Category Name:
Treatments within category:

Category Name: 
Treatments within category:

2. Which categories require a greater background understanding of human and cat biology? What fields of science are shared across the categories? Which fields are unique to one or more categories?   

3. Are some categories of approach more invasive than others? Are some riskier? How does the risk relate to the benefits of the treatment type? 

4. Are there any categories of approach that weren’t considered or covered in the article?

5. Which treatment would you choose if you had a cat allergy and why?

Apply your thinking to a new allergen

With your partner, choose a different allergy such as pollen, bee stings, particular foods or other animals. Use the questions below to devise possible treatments for the chosen allergy, and select what you think would be the most viable treatment option.   

1. What’s your chosen allergy? What is the allergen responsible and how is it produced? How does it spread to humans?

2. Describe a possible treatment approach that fits within each category defined above. Can you think of a treatment approach that fits into a different category? If so, explain it.

3. What are the advantages and drawbacks to each treatment?

4. What scientific background information would you need to create each treatment? 

5. If you were to further explore and develop one of the treatment, which would you choose? Why? How would you begin to collect the background information needed?