For the 15 million Americans who suffer from asthma, being in the presence of a cat can make their symptoms worse. Strangely enough, some doctors believe that cats may lead them to a cure. CBS News Correspondent Eric Engberg reports.
What troubles doctors like James Baraniuk is that the numbers of people suffering from asthma are increasing. Asthma cases are up by nearly 70 percent, and are particularly increasing among children, especially among those who spend a great deal of time indoors where they are surrounded by dust mites, refiltered air and, all too often, a pet cat.
"The cat licks its skin, licks its fur, and the saliva and the skin proteins become the dander," Dr. Baraniuk explains. "That will flake off as the cat runs around through the rest of the day, and then these flakes will fly all over the place."
However, medical researchers say the cat is in a unique position to help humans understand what triggers asthma.
"Of all the species that have been used to try to understand asthma in people, there is only one animal besides the human being that develops asthma naturally. And it turns out, it's the cat," says Dr. Phil Padrid of the University of Chicago.
Asthmatic cats show the same symptoms as humans -- wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing. But only in the last five years, because of new tools for studying cells, have researchers begun to study cats in earnest.
"The X-rays that we see with cats with asthma are very similar actually to the X-rays of people," says Dr. Padrid. "And they have a very similar response to therapeutic drugs, as do people with asthma."
Padrid shares his laboratory with what he calls "fellow researchers" -- cats with asthma. He studies them to better understand the disease itself and how it reacts to promising treatments. He hopes the treatments may one day help asthma sufferers.
That day couldn't come too soon for Gwendolyn Deck, who has watched helplessly as her daughter struggled to breathe. "It's nothing to joke about," she says. "And parents, if they have any kids and they have it, stay close by them because they're not promised to us. Because in the blink of an eye they could be gone."
Last year, more than 5,000 Americans died from asthma. A cure is not yet in sight, but researchers are hoping their furry little friends will lead the way.
Reported By Eric Engberg