A team of Missouri allergists thinks it has found a way for cat lovers to help prevent the sneezing, red eyes and other allergic symptoms their pets produce: the answer is to keep their felines clean. Squeaky clean.

The researchers found that monthly washing significantly reduced the production of the allergen, a protein called Fel d1 (for Felis domestica, Latin for housecat) produced in the cat's saliva and by the glands on its body.

For nearly a year, H. James Wedner, associate professor of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis and his team bathed 10 cats once a month in lukewarm distilled water for 10 minutes. "After several washes, we noted a consistent decrease in Fel d1 production," Wedner wrote in a paper presented recently at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology in Baltimore. The difference, he said, was "highly statistically significant."

For people who sneeze, wheeze or itch when exposed to cats, the best thing is to remove the cat, Wedner acknowledged. However, he noted, "many patients are either unwilling or unable to eliminate cats from their homes." Cat baths may be more effective and certainly are cheaper than shots or drugs, he said.

Wedner said cats, especially kittens, can be trained to tolerate baths, although he explained that those in his study were anesthetized.

Albert C. Benson, a Bethesda veterinarian, says that most cats are fairly easy to bathe. For difficult cats, he concedes, two people may be necessary.