Allerca unveils allergen-free feline


LOS ANGELES-The company that genetically engineered an allergy-free cat says it will need veterinary help in certifying its animals, but it comes with a price tag.

LOS ANGELES—The company that genetically engineered an allergy-free cat says it will need veterinary help in certifying its animals, but it comes with a price tag.

Veterinarians will be courted to examine a new variety of the British short hair beginning at North American Veterinary Conference in Orlando next month. Allerca Inc. reportedly has silenced the gene that produces the encoded allergenic protein Fel d1. Its allergen-free feline will be ready for homes in 2007.

The price point for owners is nothing to sneeze at—$3,500 each. But the cost doesn't appear to be detouring cat fanciers; Allerca has been receiving more than 500 down payments per day since it unveiled its product in late October. Prospective owners are required a $250 deposit to secure a place in line for what Allerca is calling a lifestyle pet.

"We'll produce about 200,000 cats a year by 2010, but we will never be able to produce as many cats as there is demand," says Simon Brodie, president of Allerca.

The British short hair is Allerca's first in a series of planned lifestyle pets. The animals will be delivered with pet insurance that can be used only at the company's registered veterinary clinics.

Medical management

The company will need about 7,500 practitioners nationwide to OK the cats after they have been shipped from Allerca. The veterinarian then will hand off the animal to the buyer, as well as establish a continuing-care regimen.

"The veterinarians would be paid by us to give the animal a final certificate of good health. More importantly, it's a benefit for us and veterinarians because 95 percent of our customers have never been to a veterinarian; they've never had to because they've never had a cat. So it's important for us to provide our customer with all the support that we can," Brodie says. "From a business perspective for the veterinarians, they are taking on relatively affluent customers, being that our cats are $3,500, and these customers generally will follow our letter of the law."

Access to Allerca's customers won't be free. The company will be asking practitioners to pay an annual administration fee to be part of its program. The fee is expected to be less than $1,000 per year to cover training, promotions, support and referrals, but Brodie says the payout likely will be recouped fairly quickly through fees and services for the animals.

Allerca's cats will be delivered with all appropriate vaccinations; they will be spayed or neutered, and each animal will come with pet insurance, which is applicable only with one of the company's registered veterinarians.

The allergen-free British short hair is the first in a series of plans to produce other lifestyle pets. Allerca currently is conducting surveys online to gauge interest in the next breed of allergen-free cats. Brodie says the Maine Coon Cat leads interest in the preliminary polls.

"We don't have any specific plans for other products, but we see ourselves moving forward in the use of the genetic technology that is available or that we might develop to cure some of the inherent diseases that plague cats and dogs today, such as hip dysplasia," he says.

Not all warm and fuzzy

But welfare groups might not be champing at the bit to introduce new cats to an already overcrowded shelter network. The No. 1 reason that people surrender their animals isn't due to allergies; it's because people misunderstand the everyday responsibilities of owning an animal, says Stephanie Shain, director of outreach for the Humane Society of the United States.

"We have no reason to believe that people will not relinquish these animals for the same reasons that other people do: divorce, moving, the cat won't stop clawing my furniture or litter box issues, and we know that lots of cats lose their homes for those reasons," Shain says. "People who pay a lot of money for a pet doesn't ensure that pet a life-long home.

"On top of everything else, we have a concern that we are going to see these animals in shelters, thus increasing the number of animals in shelters in need of homes."

Allergy management can be a viable option for those who are committed to owning a cat; medications and controlling the way an animal lives in the home can reduce allergic symptoms, Shain says.

The long-term well-being of the cats might be debatable, too. Although Brodie says leading science shows that the heterodimeric glycoprotein is redundant in felines, studies are ongoing.

"We will not produce these cats until we are 100-percent sure they are allergen free and healthy," Brodie says. "We realize that we may never be able to produce these cats; this is brave new world technology."

If the animals do prove to require Fel d1, they still will produce a small amount, Brodie says.

"One of the reasons that we chose gene silencing is that it silences it, but it doesn't keep it totally quiet," he says. "It does produce a tiny amount of protein. If it turns out that the cat does need that particular protein, then the gene is still expressing the protein, but not at the level that would affect allergy sufferers."

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