Do Air Purifiers Help With Cat Hair? Straight Talk For Cat Owners

Vacuum cleaners and lint rollers can help with cat hair on things like furniture and clothing once it’s already settled. But what about hair still floating in the air?

Do air purifiers really help with cat hair or a potential waste of time and money? Read on and I’ll answer that question – and explain why there’s more to know.

Answering the question: Do air purifiers help with cat hair?

Picture of cat on couch with hair
Let’s get to the short answer first – I’ll cover the other things you need to know as we go.

Air purifier & cat hair facts
  • Air purifiers definitely can help trap cat hair floating in the air and reduce the overall amount of cat hair around you. However, they’re not capable of removing a substantial amount, as most is found on surfaces like furniture and clothing.
  • The main benefit an air purifier provides is that it can remove some cat hair that’s carried by air before it settles on surrounding surfaces.
  • Hair isn’t the only problem for cat owners. Pet dander and odors are also air quality problems which air purifiers are good for.

An air purifier can help with cat hair, but there’s no magic solution to get rid of it or keep it from showing up in your home.

The good news is that they provide good relief for some of the worst causes of allergies, sniffling, and sneezing: Pet dander. They can help a lot with pet odors as well. For that reason they’re not a waste of money and will still improve your quality of life.

It’s important to understand that air purifiers can’t remove cat hair that has already settled and clung to furniture and other surfaces. Like dust, cat hair will stay in the air for a short time before settling.

You’ll still need to use a vacuum cleaner or lint roller.

Cat hair and pet dander basics

Image note about pet allergies

To begin with, is it cat hair or cat dander that you need help with? Do you know the difference between the two?

A lot of people may feel like they’re the same thing but there’s definitely a big difference.

The difference between cat hair and cat dander

There’s a common misconception that cat hair causes allergies. But that’s all it is: a myth. Cat hair is literally just cat hair, although it just like with dogs it may have oils secreted by the cat’s skin on it too.

Contrary to popular belief, cat hair is actually safe for those with cat allergies.

A clean strand of cat fur will not induce any allergic reactions, even if you sniff it or touch it. On the other hand, cat dander is made of dead skin cells and it triggers allergic reactions.

Cat dander gets worse the older a cat gets due to deteriorating health.

Older cats are more susceptible to diseases that cause hormone imbalance. If your cat is getting older and you notice your allergies worsen, perhaps it’s time to invest in an air purifier.

Dander is a big problem – and how it gets around

Image of pet allergens and skin up close

Pet dander under a microscope. Dander is actually the shedding of dead skin cells, just like happens with humans too.

Cat dander is the true culprit behind all those sneezes and sniffles people react with. Along with cat urine and saliva, dander is one of the main triggers of cat allergies.

Much like other contaminants, pet dander isn’t just on surfaces – it’s often airborne.

Typically it causes allergic reactions as it contacts your skin and enters your nose or respiratory passageways where it triggers a reaction in your body.  How bad your allergies will be are different from person to person.

Did you know? It’s not just pet dander that affects your allergies.

Dust mites feed on human and pet skin cells and produce allergy-causing by-products. If you have allergies and you have pets, consider treating the dust mite problem as well.

Dander and dust mites

Dust mites cause allergic reactions and feed (and increase in number) from a supply of pet dander or human skin. There’s a good chance your allergies are due to this too.

While cat hair itself is harmless, cat dander and saliva can latch onto cat hair (especially since a cat grooms itself by licking). This is a big problem for people with cat allergies as it’s easy for cat hair to attach itself and spread or just float around the air.

As you can now see, there’s a lot to deal with. If you want relief you need a way to capture those microscopic elements and remove them from your living space.

How air purifiers help with cat hair and dander

Diagram showing how an air purifier works for pet hair and dander

Air purifiers capture cat hair and dander by continuously cycling the air in a room and filtering them out of the air as it passes through. There are 2 main filters (with 3 functions, often called a “3-in-1” purifier) that do so: a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter section and a pre-filter section with activated carbon inside or specialized chemical treatment. A good quality air purifier like the popular GermGuardian AC4825 will move a good amount of air quickly and help with pet problems.

Air purifiers work by using a fan to cycle the air in a room and filter out unwanted particulates, hair, allergens, and more.

You’ll need to buy one that’s capable of moving a sufficient amount of air in the room it’s used in. Ratings like the Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR) or air flow rate specifications such as the Cubic Feet per Minute (CFM) help you to know how effective a particular model is when shopping.

For cat odors, hairs, and dander you’ll want to get a purifier with the following filters:

  • A prefilter for capturing hair
  • An odor-absorbing activated carbon prefilter section
  • True HEPA filter

The HEPA filter section & pre-filter section

Illustration of HEPA air purifier for dust sections

A HEPA filter (white) is an EXCELLENT means of trapping and permanently removing sickness and allergy-causing foreign matter. They’re made of very densely packed superfine fibers which permanently trap almost all foreign materials passing through them. A pre-filter section (black) is a more mesh filter section used to catch larger particles like cat hair and dust before it reaches the HEPA section.

High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters are excellent filters and can permanently trap microscopic particles. A HEPA filter can trap particles down to 0.3 microns, or less than 1/1,000,000 of a meter!

Dander and dust mite by-products can be a few microns in size so a HEPA filter in a good quality purifier will be able to remove them from the air and help reduce allergy symptoms as well as keep the air fresh.

The pre-filter section, in most cases made of a thin, mesh material, works to trap cat hair before it can reach the HEPA filter. In some cases, the pre-filter section is removable and can be vacuumed or brushed to extend its life and remove hair buildup.

That leads us to the issue of cat odors.

Odor-absorbing pre-filters for cat odors

GermGuardian FLT11CB4 carbon filter diagramAir purifiers (specifically, filter-based products) use activated carbon (charcoal) coating to absorb and trap odors. Carbon is an industry-standard element used in many types of filters including for water. Once it’s used up the filter must be replaced.

A good air purifier will offer an activated carbon filter (useful against smells and chemical emissions) to trap bad smells from your kitty. Mine has helped a lot and there’s a good reason that carbon filters are used: they just plain work for reducing cat odors.

How does a prefilter help with cat smells?

Activated carbon is the essential element required for removing odors and terrible smells with an air purifier. I bring that up because, in fact, not all purifiers include this type of filter!

Activated carbon (which is a form of charcoal) is a granular, tiny element used as an ingredient in a special section of the air purifier’s 2 or 3 filters. Carbon is a porous and absorbent element that has the ability to trap odors and airborne chemicals present.

For easy maintenance and lower costs, be sure to shop for a purifier with a separately removable pre-filter.

Pets produce a lot of air and it can build up quickly on the pre-filter during use. Models with a separately removable pre-filter you can vacuum (or wash, in some cases) make it easy to keep air cleaning performance high. You’ll also save money as normally the HEPA filter won’t need to be replaced when the pre-filter is.

When the purifier’s internal fan draws air through the carbon filter substances in the air are absorbed and removed from the air. This includes not just pet odors but also chemical vapors and other unpleasant airborne substances.

In most – but not all – purifiers, the activated carbon section is combined with the pre-filter also. In that case, it’s a coating on the mesh screen material.

Honeywell HPA300 pre-filter installation

Example of a typical air purifier pre-filter material with odor absorbing coating. Most air purifiers sold today have this type. It’s made from a soft mesh material that’s coated with an activated carbon solution when made. In many (but not all) these can be replaced separately from the main HEPA filter.

The best type of odor-absorbing prefilter for pet odors

Closeup of Winix 5500-2 activated carbon prefilter

The best odor control for pet smells comes from odor-absorbing filters with real carbon pellets instead of the simple coating most use. They’re much more effective and have a longer life, too.

For the best pet odor control you can buy, look for an air purifier with an odor filter with real carbon pellets instead of the activated carbon coating most use. Pet smells can be tough to deal with, and this type of filter not only lasts longer but has much better odor-absorbing performance, too.

Winix 5500-2 Editor's Choice review summary image

A great example is the top-selling Winix 5500-2 that I own, reviewed, and awarded my Editor’s Choice recommendation.

It’s one of the best for cat & pet odor control you’ll find and it’s great for cat hair. I love how the front pre-filter is easily removed and can be washed.

I’d also suggest a good vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter or other filter (or bag) for cleaning carpets and furniture. As I mentioned earlier, cleaning you’ll need to clean cat hair from nearby furniture and other surfaces so a good vacuum cleaner is ideal.

A quick note about reusable HEPA filter air purifiers

Hamilton Beach TrueAir purifier features image

It’s a bit less common, but there are some air purifiers that allow easy access for vacuuming the HEPA filter in order to extend its life and help keep maintenance costs down. The popular Hamilton Beach TrueAir small room pet air purifier is a great example.

We love our pets (I’m especially fond of cats, what can I say?) but let’s be honest: There is a bit of hassle when it comes to cleaning up after them and dealing with their hair and other side effects.

Because they produce so much hair, in my experience air purifiers can build up a lot of pet hair in a short amount of time. The problem is that if you buy the wrong kind of purifier you’ll end up spending a lot more money on new filters and might not be able to keep the filters working efficiently.

For cat and other pet hair problems, shop for a purifier with some of the following options:

  • Removable pre-filter that can be replaced separately (as opposed to having to replace the HEPA filter even when not needed)
  • Pre-filter can be brushed/vacuumed or washed
  • A HEPA filter can be vacuumed to extend its useful life

Mainly you’ll at least want a pre-filter that you can access to vacuum off the cat hair regularly. That’s because as it builds up the air purifier’s performance will degrade.

Removing the hair periodically will keep it running at maximum performance and will also help extend filter life. (Note that most pre-filters/odor filters need to be replaced after about 6-8 months)

Note: Unless the manufacturer specifically states you can, never wash pre-filters in water as they’re not designed to do so, and you’ll ruin them.

A true HEPA filter can’t be washed. Some pre-filters and activated carbon filters on some products can be, however.

Grant Williams

About the author

Grant is a professional engineer by trade and has experience with both maintenance and do-it-yourself home projects. He enjoys sharing his expertise & ideas with others to help them improve their comfort and quality of life. Read more »

Your comments are welcome!

  1. Thank you for caring and sharing. The information will be very helpful in selecting a good HEPA (3 in 1 purifier). I had no idea where to start.


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