Family Health: Living with pet allergies

Between the companionship and the extra nudge to take a walk, pets do a lot to keep us healthy. According to the CDC, pet ownership can lower your blood pressure, improve your cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and help you get in better shape overall.

For some people, though, these benefits are outweighed by the risks of owning a pet – severe allergic reactions can make it dangerous to be close to certain pets or even enter a house where one has been in the recent past. But that’s the exception. In most cases there are steps that can reduce or eliminate symptoms so people with allergies can enjoy their pets. The objective of most of these steps is to put distance between you and the substance that is causing the reaction, which is known as an allergen.

The usual suspects

All furry animals can cause allergies, especially cats – they are twice as likely as dogs to cause an allergic reaction. But fur isn’t the problem. Instead, it’s dander – flakes of dead skin that are shed and settle on clothing and other surfaces. Pet saliva and urine can also cause allergies.

When someone with a pet allergy contacts one of these allergens, their immune system may react with allergic dermatitis – hives, rashes and other itchy skin symptoms. More commonly, the allergen is inhaled and causes allergic rhinitis – sneezing, runny nose, congestion and red, watery eyes. Since allergens can remain on surfaces and suspended in small air currents for long periods, symptoms can occur even when the pet hasn’t been in the room for days.

Pet allergies vary, and people can be more sensitive to some breeds than others. However, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), there is no breed of dog or cat that is truly non-allergenic (won’t cause an allergic reaction in anyone) or even hypoallergenic (causing milder reactions). Even hairless breeds can cause allergies.

Making adjustments

Allergic reactions to pets can be worse in people who have other allergies, such as to pollen or mold. In people who have asthma, pet allergies can bring on a life-threatening asthma attack. These people should be careful to stay away from the allergens that cause the reaction, which means avoiding the pet and anything it has touched. If you or a family member have this type of severe reaction, your only option may be to re-home your pet.

If the allergic reaction is milder, you can probably keep your pet and make some household changes. The AAFA suggests these:

  • Create an allergen-free zone in your home. The allergic person’s bedroom is a good candidate for such a zone. Keep the pet out and use a HEPA air filter to clean the air. Vacuum carpet or rugs frequently, or remove them – wood or tile floors are less likely to accumulate allergens. Use hypoallergenic bedding.
  • Keep fabrics to a minimum throughout the house. That means blinds or shades instead of curtains, and hard floors instead of carpet. If you keep curtains and carpet, steam-clean them regularly. Another step is to cover your upholstered furniture with blankets or decorative fabric that can be laundered.
  • Vacuum and dust frequently. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter or a disposable electrostatic bag. Dust surfaces, including walls, with a damp cloth.
  • If your cat is the problem, clean the litter box regularly. Use low-dust, scent-free filler.
  • Bathe your pet once a week to wash off accumulated dander and other allergens. Ask your veterinarian to recommend a shampoo that won’t dry out the pet’s skin. Also wash the pet’s bedding regularly. It’s best to have a non-allergic person do these jobs.
  • Have a non-allergic person brush the pet frequently. Do it outdoors, and check for signs of skin problems on the pet. Dermatitis can cause flakey skin, which means more dander in your home.
  • If you can’t resist cuddling your pet, change your clothes and wash your hands afterward.

Ask an allergist

Before you give up a pet or take disruptive steps in your home, make sure your pet is really the problem. An examination and testing with an allergist may determine that you are allergic to another substance – allergies to pollens and molds are common. These allergens can cling to your pet’s fur, making your symptoms difficult to diagnose without expert help.

Whether it’s your pet or something else in your environment, you may get relief from a nasal spray or other medicine that treats symptoms. A treatment called immunotherapy, or allergy shots, is sometimes used for animal allergies. This is a series of injections that exposes your immune system to very small doses of the allergen. As the doses increase over three to six months, your immune system becomes desensitized to the problem substance. You’ll need maintenance shots every month for three to five years.

For more information about living with pet allergies, visit the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America at aafa.org.