After growing up around animals my entire life, I had no idea I was allergic to guinea pigs until my first year of veterinary technician school. After handling a guinea pig in one of my classes for all of 5 minutes, my throat tightened, my eyes got itchy and watery, and I was struggling to breathe. Turns out, you can be fine around dozens of different animals, but be extremely allergic to just one species. Who knew?
Actually, lots of people. Pet allergies have become increasingly common over the past few decades, with approximately 17 percent of cat owners and 5 percent of dog owners reporting allergies to their own pets.
Allergies are particularly common in developed countries, affecting nearly 30 percent of the total population. Of that 30 percent, more than 15 percent of those people report allergic reactions to cats and dogs. With more than 161 million cats and dogs in the United States, pet allergies have become a real challenge for people who love their pets and consider them members of the family.
What Causes a Pet Allergy?
All allergies are caused by allergens, which are normally harmless substances that, in some people, trigger the immune system to overreact.
Contrary to popular belief, pet allergens don’t originate in hair, feathers, or fur. They are actually proteins secreted in animals’ saliva, urine, and by sebaceous glands in the skin. These proteins are sticky and cling to the animal’s fur and skin, where they dry and are shed, along with tiny flakes of skin, as dander. Once airborne, dander settles on household items and surfaces such as carpet, bedding, furniture, walls, and curtains.
So it’s not the pet’s hair that’s the allergen, it’s the dander. Dog and cat dander can get everywhere – and once airborne, these particles can remain suspended in the air for extremely long periods of time. Pet dander has even been found in homes that were never occupied by animals, presumably carried there on people’s clothing.
The proteins in pet dander are unique to every species, so it’s possible to be allergic to mice, but not rats, or vice versa. (Which explains why, to date, guinea pigs are the only species I seem to be allergic to – but when exposed to them, I react in a big way.)
Symptoms Triggered By Pet Allergies
Symptoms of pet allergies are caused by dander inflaming the nasal passages. They include:
- Itchy, watering eyes
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- Itching of the nose, throat, or roof of the mouth
- Postnasal drip
- Facial pressure and pain
- Waking up frequently during the night
- Swollen, dark circles under the eyes
If a person is allergic to cats and continues to have repeated contact with them, it can actually lead to the development of asthma. For about 20 – 30 percent of people with asthma, contact with cats can trigger a severe attack. Asthma symptoms include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest tightness or pain
- Audible whistling or wheezing sound when exhaling
- Trouble sleeping due to shortness of breath
Other people who are allergic to pets may experience skin symptoms. Direct contact with a pet, such as petting the animal, or getting licked or scratched, may trigger allergic dermatitis symptoms such as hives, eczema, rashes, or itchy skin. Skin symptoms may not appear until several days after the initial contact.
Diagnosing Pet Allergies
The only way to definitively confirm an allergy (to pets or anything else) is to be tested by an Allergist. It’s important to note that, for some people, what they think is a pet allergy is actually an allergy to something else in the environment, like mold, pollen, or grass. These allergens can stick to a pet’s hair coat and cause reactions in sensitive people.
There are two types of tests commonly used to help diagnose allergies. The first, a skin test, involves tiny amounts of purified allergen extracts being pricked onto the surface of the skin (usually on the forearm or upper back). After about 15 minutes, the doctor examines the skin for signs of reaction, which are usually visible as redness.
The second test is a blood test, which looks for antibodies circulating in the blood that are specific to certain allergens.
In some cases, the doctor may recommend that a patient leave their home environment for a specified period of time to see if symptoms resolve. Removing the pet from the patient’s household usually doesn’t do any good, since allergens in the environment can linger for months after the source of the allergens is removed.
Treatment and Management
It is possible for people who are mildly allergic to pets to live comfortably with them. My husband is allergic to cats, and we have 3 of them… he simply refuses to consider the thought of life without them!
The most effective way to manage a pet allergy is to avoid as many of the allergens causing the symptoms as possible. Here are several ways you can reduce the prevalence of allergens in your home:
- Bathe your pet frequently. Ask a non-allergic family member or friend to bathe your pet weekly. Even kitties can be bathed, just be sure to only use a shampoo made specifically for dogs and cats – not for people.
- Establish a pet-free zone. Always keep pets out of your bedroom and any other areas where you sleep to reduce the allergen level in those rooms. Be strict about enforcing the “pet-free” areas of your home!
- Remove carpeting, window treatments, and upholstered furniture that attracts dander. Tile, wood, vinyl, or linoleum flooring doesn’t hold dander as easily as carpet. (Throw rugs are usually okay, since they can be washed in hot water.) If you must have carpet, choose one with a low pile and steam clean it frequently. Also consider replacing curtains with vertical blinds (they hold less dust than horizontal blinds).
- Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate) filter. If your vacuum doesn’t have a filter, use a microfilter bag to reduce the recirculation of pet dander. Also, wear a dust mask when vacuuming.
- Use HEPA air filters and air purifiers. Air purifiers and vent filters may help reduce airborne allergens. Air filters should be used for at least 4 hours per day.
- Enlist help. When it comes time to clean your pet’s litter box, kennel, or cage, ask a non-allergic family member or friend to do the work. Also, have them brush the pet outside, if possible, not inside your home.
- Clean your home thoroughly and often, including surfaces that trap pet hair like pet beds, couch covers, pillows, and blankets.
- If your pet rides in the car with you, consider using washable car seat covers.
- Wash your hands after you play with your pet. Take a shower or bath before bedtime to avoid contaminating your “pet-free” zone.
- Forced-air heating and air-conditioning can blow allergens throughout your home. Consider covering vents with a dense filtering material like cheesecloth.
- Make sure your pet’s essential fatty acid requirements are being met. Optimal levels of essential fatty acids help reduce shedding and dander.
If someone advises you to just “keep your pet outside”, remember that banishing a pet to the outdoors is not only dangerous and detrimental for the pet, it also won’t help the allergy situation. Pet dander will eventually make its way indoors, carried on clothing, skin, and air currents.
There are also medical treatments that can help improve allergy symptoms. These include:
- Antihistamines: Reduce the production of histamine, an immune system chemical that causes allergy symptoms.
- Corticosteroids: Delivered as a low-dose nasal spray, these reduce inflammation. Nasal corticosteroids have a lower risk of side effects than those given orally.
- Decongestants: Help shrink swollen tissues in nasal passages, making it easier to breathe through your nose.
- Leukotriene modifiers: Block the action of certain immune system chemicals. These are very effective if you can’t tolerate corticosteroid nasal sprays. Singulair is the most well-known leukotriene modifier.
- Immunotherapy: “Trains” your immune system through a series of shots containing small doses of the allergen you are allergic to. The dose is gradually increased over a 3-6 month period, followed by maintenance shots every four weeks for 3-5 years.
- Nasal irrigation: A Neti Pot or specially designed squeeze bottle filled with a pre-prepared saline rinse is very effective at flushing out irritants and allergens from sinuses.
Best Pets for People with Allergies
What if your allergies are so severe that your home needs to be as free of dander as possible? If that’s the case, you don’t have to totally abandon the idea of loving and caring for a pet. There are several pets to consider that are far less likely to trigger allergic responses:
- Reptiles and Amphibians – These include turtles, snakes, geckos, iguanas, salamanders, and bearded dragons. One recent study in Israel concluded that holding a turtle reduced people’s anxiety as much as holding a rabbit.
- Fish – There are hundreds of varieties of fish in all sizes, shapes and colors. Watching fish in an aquarium can lower your heart rate and blood pressure and reduce stress. Plus, it’s now becoming apparent that fish are more intelligent and interactive than we’ve previously thought – check out this video of a fish whose owner clicker-trained him to perform tricks!
- Small mammals (“pocket pets”) – If you prefer furry pets, consider a Syrian hamster, gerbil, mouse, or rat. Rats in particular make great pets – they have less hair than other rodents, and love being handled.
The Myth of Hypo-allergenic Dogs and Cats
It was once believed that certain dog breeds were hypo-allergenic, which means they were less likely to cause allergic reactions. Those breeds included dogs with a “single coat” (versus a “double coat”, which consists of a top coat made of stiff hairs to help repel water and dirt, plus an undercoat to serve as insulation).
However, allergic dander is not affected by length of hair or type of fur. People with pet allergies can be sensitive to ANY animal. Even if your dog or cat were completely bald, you could still be allergic to them.
That being said, while no animal is allergen-free, some experts refer to hypo-allergenic dog breeds as ones that seem to produce fewer allergens than most other breeds. In these dogs, perhaps shedding is less, reducing the amount of allergens floating in the air. Whatever the reason, there do appear to be some breeds of dogs and cats that are better tolerated by allergy sufferers than others.
The following list was compiled from a variety of different reports by people with dog and/or cat allergies, who reported that these breeds seemed to be better tolerated than most.
- Portuguese Water Dog
- Kerry Blue Terrier
- Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier
- Bichon Frise
- Standard Poodle
- Bedlington Terrier
- Dandie Dinmont Terrier
- Irish Water Spaniel
- Lhasa Apso
- Silky Terrier
- Yorkshire Terrier
- American Labradoodle
- Chinese Crested Dog
- Standard Schnauzer
- Sphynx Cat
- Devon Rex Cat
Your Health is Most Important
Pet allergies can be frustrating, but once you understand what causes them, you can start taking steps to reduce your exposure to the things that trigger them. Depending on your level of reactivity, that may be enough to allow you to continue to live with and enjoy your pets for many years to come.
However, if you are severely allergic to animals and allergy management techniques are not effective for you, as difficult as it may be, you may need to consider finding a new home for your pet. If you are faced with this decision, please remember that in the end your health is the most important thing. Talk with your veterinarian for recommendations on local organizations that can provide support and assistance with re-homing your pet.
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Do you suffer from pet allergies? If so, how do you deal with them? Please tell us about it in the comments below!