A "SNEEZE-FREE" cat that does not trigger an allergic reaction in humans has been bred.
The ultimate designer pet has been created by an American firm which has used selective breeding to produce what it bills as the world's first hypoallergenic cat.
California-based Allerca Lifestyle Pets, which plans to sell the four-legged friends in the UK for thousands of pounds each, said the breakthrough would provide much-needed relief for the millions of cat-lovers who suffer from feline allergies.
But People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) accused the company of treating pets as "nothing more than designer handbags just to earn a buck".
Cat allergies are triggered by a protein in the cat's saliva and skin flakes that are left on the animal's fur when it licks itself during grooming.
An allergic person who inhales these airborne particles can suffer an asthma attack, itching, sneezing or skin rashes within minutes.
Scientists at Allerca claim to have produced more than 20 allergy-free cats already by breeding over several generations, after identifying short-haired felines without the protein which provokes a reaction in humans.
The firm plans to begin selling the designer pets for £7,500 - not including shipping or quarantine costs - from next year and says it has hundreds of advance orders from across the US and Europe.
The company's chief executive, Simon Brodie, said: "The personality of the first breed of hypoallergenic cat is playful and affectionate.
"They make great family pets and are wonderful with children."
Megan Young, the chief executive of Allerca, said: "For the first time, people who have allergies will be able to keep a cat without suffering.
"This is a scientific breakthrough."
But PETA said it was opposed to the designer pets.
Poorva Joshipura, PETA's Europe director, said: "Breeding for a certain genetic trait can lead to numerous health problems, including physical deformities, deafness, eye diseases, and a host of other ailments. And while companies like Allerca irresponsibly treat cats as nothing more than today's latest designer handbag just to earn a buck, millions of animals die each year due to lack of good homes."
Meanwhile, the charity Asthma UK challenged Allerca's claim to have produced a completely allergy-free cat.
A spokeswoman, Karen Newell, said: "It must be remembered hypo-allergenic only means that allergens are reduced, not removed completely.
"And while this tackles the main protein responsible for allergic responses to cats there are many other cat allergens which could still trigger people's asthma."
The charity said there are 2.6 million British asthma sufferers whose attacks are triggered by household pets.
Things you can do for your pets
RESEARCHERS in Texas cloned the world's first domestic cat in February 2002, called CopyCat.
In 2003, a luxury hotel in Versailles near Paris began offering VIP room service and gourmet food for guests' pets. Meanwhile, Japanese beauty salons have been treating pets to deluxe acupuncture, hydrotherapy and herbal remedies for the last two years while a vet in Brazil began offering plastic surgery, including face lifts and botox injections for pets in 2004. The same year, Britain's first professor of animal psychiatry was appointed at Lincoln University - more than 15,000 pets worldwide are referred to pet shrinks every year.
Last year, a Korean team produce the world's first cloned dog, Snuppy the Afghan hound. And earlier this month, a Michelin-starred restaurant near Verona, Italy unveiled a cordon bleu menu for dogs.