People love pets. Nearly 70% of American homes have an animal companion inside of them, and that number is growing. But sometimes bringing our furry pals inside can cause some unpleasant side effects. One of the biggest comes from allergies.
Keep reading to learn all about pet allergies. Understand what they are, what causes them, ways to treat and prevent them, and what to do if your friendly four-legged critter is causing allergic suffering for someone you love.
Sometimes our bodies behave in surprising ways. And sometimes the things our bodies react to don't make a lot of sense. When we come into contact with an otherwise harmless substance that triggers an immune response, it's called an allergy. The typically harmless substance that caused the reaction is called an allergen.
Allergic reactions can be mild or extremely serious—even deadly in some cases. They can sometimes lead to asthma or other conditions like sinusitis. As a whole, allergies impact more than 50 million Americans every year. They also cost us an estimated $18 billion each year.
For reasons that are not clear, people seem to be getting more allergies today than they did 30 years ago. Asthma cases have tripled, and other forms of allergies—pet allergies included—seem to be on the rise.
If you suspect you may be one of the people prone to pet allergies there are a couple of common symptoms to watch out for. If you find yourself sneezing or have a runny nose after spending time with an animal companion, you may be having an allergic reaction. Here are more potential symptoms:
- Red, itchy, watery eyes
- Hives or rashes
- Sinus pressure and pain (from congestion)
- If you are prone to asthma, your chest may become tight, you may cough more, and you may find it hard to breathe
For highly sensitive people, symptoms take mere minutes to appear after contact.
Studies indicate that allergies are more common today than they were 30 years ago, and that includes pet allergies. Experts disagree on the reason. Some theories include a rise in hygiene, a decrease in physical activity, and the impact of global warming. Whatever the reason, pet allergies seem to be increasing as well. One study showed that more than five times as many people showed allergic reactions to cats in the early 90s than they had in the late 70s.
Researchers have found a link between exposing infants to pet microbes and a reduction of pet allergies. When a newborn is exposed to certain microbes associated with pets in the first few months of his or her life, the child's risk of developing an allergic reaction to that type of animal is substantially reduced.
Other research has indicated a connection between dog microbes and a reduced risk of asthma—at least in mice. Mice were given supplements of household dust from both homes with dogs and homes without dogs. The mice given the dog-house dust were strongly protected against respiratory problems from allergies.
Technically it's not your pets causing you to sniffle and sneeze—it's their proteins. A family of proteins that come from three main groups are responsible for a majority of these symptoms. These are secretoglobins, lipocalins, and kallikreins. Of these, more than half of the furry animal allergens have been identified as lipocalins, which are proteins responsible for moving vitamins, steroids, and other substances throughout the body.
Allergy-causing proteins are found in different places for cats and dogs. In dogs, allergens are found in the saliva, dander, urine, and hair (close-up of dog hair and skin cells pictured). In cats, they can be found in the fur, saliva, and skin.
It's not just the allergens your pet produces that you need to steer clear of if you are allergic. Pets can track other allergens into the home as well. These include pollens from ragweed and other hay fever-inducing plants, mold, dust mites, spores, and more.
The first and most obvious solution is to steer clear of any animals that cause your symptoms. That's not always so easy, or even possible, depending on where you live and work. So if you can't avoid pet allergens, here are some other helpful solutions.
People who are highly sensitive may come down with symptoms even outside the home. If that's the case, you will want to have antihistamines, eye drops, and nasal sprays at the ready, as well as bronchodilators if you are prone to asthma. Allergy shots may be a good choice for you, too. Talk to your doctor about the best medicines available for your situation.
Sometimes the offending animal is also a part of the family. If you live with the animal, keep it outside if at all possible. If not, keep one room pet-free—preferably one without carpeting. Keep a HEPA air filter in that room, and keep upholstered furniture to a minimum. Impermeable slip covers for cushions are useful, too. Clean and vacuum frequently to keep dander and dust at bay. Keep the pet off upholstered furniture, and have someone in the home who isn't allergic brush the animal outside and wash the pet regularly. Change clothes after contact. And although it can be hard to resist, refrain from hugging and kissing your furry friend.
Sometimes being exposed to an allergen over time can lessen your symptoms, but that's not always the case. There are shots available, too. Allergy shots work by injecting an extract of dander mixed with salt water under your skin. This process requires several injections. For the first six months, you will need to take the shots once a week. After six months, you can begin taking the shot once every two to four weeks for another six months. If it shows signs of helping, you can continue this regimen for up to five years.
This may be a difficult process if you are allergic to dogs. Dogs don't have one primary allergen, so adapting your body through this process could be challenging. Some researchers believe low-quality extracts may be to blame as well for allergy shot failures.
Although it defies common belief, your dog's hair length has nothing to do with how likely it is to set off allergies. How much your pooch sheds does not matter, either. So whether your dog has long hair or short hair, sheds frequently or infrequently, the allergic dander that sticks to the fur can cause problems.
If dander is the culprit when it comes to canine allergies, what can be done about it? Pet dander can be controlled with a few helpful products, along with vigilant cleaning. HEPA air filters work by forcing the air inside your home through fine mesh. This traps even the tiny particulates that can cause your immune system to overreact. These typically clean the air from a single room, so make sure the HEPA filter you choose is big enough to handle the room you place it in. These filters are also used by some vacuum cleaners.
You will also want to regularly and thoroughly clean your home to keep dander down. This means keeping your bed linens clean on a regular basis, vacuuming once a week, and using that vacuum on any upholstered surface—not just the carpeting. If you can, replace carpets with hard surfaces like wood or tile. Replace fabric curtains and draperies with materials that won't trap tiny particles in the same way. With careful cleaning and air filtering, you can remove and keep out many of the allergens in your home.
Cats and dogs cause allergies in completely different ways. When it comes to cats, proteins in the saliva tend to be a major cause of allergy symptoms. Since your feline friend likes to stay clean by licking, all of that saliva ends up on your cat's fur as well. When it dries, the proteins are released into the air you breathe.
The protein causing the most problems is Fel d 1. Fel d 1 is particularly sticky, meaning it can attach to surfaces where cats have never been; for example, inside offices, schools, and other public places carried there by cat owners. Then again, places where tabbies live have the highest concentration of the offending protein. Even if a feline is removed from a home, it can take several months for its proteins to decrease in carpets and as long as five years for them to decrease in a mattress. Encasing the mattress may be your best bet in such situations.
While all felines shed the protein, some shed more than others. Male tomcats who are not neutered shed more proteins than female cats because their testosterone stimulates the production of the protein. Cats who have mites or ticks are also more likely to spread their proteins because they bite and groom their skin more frequently. So neutering your pet and keeping it free from irritating infestations can be helpful steps. Bathing your tabby is also useful. Kittens are usually more accepting of this, but mature cats can also be gradually accustomed to this cleaning process.
This one could come as a bit of a shocker. Despite all you've heard about cats and dogs being bred without allergens—some costing $20,000 or more—there's no scientific evidence they exist. Sure, some pets are sold using these claims, but researchers have failed to show any significant difference between such animals and your typical four-legged friend.
One study looked at 173 homes of dog owners. Scientists measured levels of a common dog allergen protein called Can f 1. They grouped the homes into four categories based on different ways of classifying canines for potential allergens. After conducting the experiment, the scientists found “no statistically significant differences” between homes with hypoallergenic dogs and homes with conventional dogs.
You've already read the bad news—hypoallergenic pets are a myth. But it may be possible for some people to find a pet who is more agreeable to their allergic symptoms than others. Certain dog breeds seem to present less of a problem than others, but this varies from person to person. It also varies from animal to animal, with some individuals more likely to set off allergies than others.
With so much unpredictability, and because we don't have a system that can reliably predict which pet may be better for which family where cat allergies or dog allergies are present, your best bet is to find a breed you are interested in and find out for yourself whether such an animal sets off sneezing and other symptoms. Arrange to have the allergy-sufferer spend some time with one particular animal to see how it goes before you bring a specific four-legged friend home.
Before you consider saying goodbye to your pet, make an appointment with an allergist. Allergists and immunologists are medical professionals who are specially trained to identify allergy sources and help allergic people plan around their allergenic environments. They may even discover you're not allergic to pets at all! A lot of people believe they have a pet allergy, when it may instead be the mold, dust mites, pollen or other allergens an animal companion tracks in that are causing problems.
IMAGES PROVIDED BY:
- Steve Gschmeissner / Photo Researchers, Inc.
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology: "Pet Allergy."
- American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology: "Types of Allergies: Pet Allergies."
- American Journal of Rhinology & Allergy: "Dog allergen levels in homes with hypoallergenic compared with nonhypoallergenic dogs."
- American Pet Products Association: "Pet Industry Market Size & Ownership Statistics."
- Annals of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology: "Dog allergen immunotherapy: Past, present, and future."
- Auckland Allergy Clinic: "Cat Allergy."
- Biochemical Journal: "The lipocalin protein family: structure and function."
- CDC: "Allergies"
- Faculty of 1,000 Research: "Recent Understandings of Pet Allergies."
- How Stuff Works: "Will an allergy shot help with an allergy to pet dander?"
- Humane Society: "How to Live With Allergies and Pets."
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America: "House dust exposure mediates gut microbiome Lactobacillus enrichment and airway immune defense against allergens and virus infection."