A Beginner’s Guide To Pet Allergies

Pet allergies can be so challenging, especially when someone in the household can’t bear to give up the pet or when your best friend just got the cutest little puppy (and you HAVE to have one!).  It is estimated that slightly more than 60% of U.S. households have pets and more than 160 million of these pets are cats and dogs.

These pets can be serious dander factories, putting off allergens constantly. And so, unfortunately, millions of pet owners are allergic to their own pets.

Dog drying itself and shaking off dander

Allergic To Animals -What’s going on?

Essentially, what happens during an allergic reaction is that your body’s immune system identifies something off the animal as foreign and dangerous - so it attacks it.  Any of the proteins found in the pet’s dander, skin flakes, hair, saliva, or urine can cause an allergic reaction.  In general, cat allergens tends to be more potent than dog allergens, creating a stronger reaction.

Standard symptoms of an allergy are sneezing, runny nose, itchy, red watery eyes, nasal congestion, cough, itchy nose, roof of mouth or throat, and mild facial swelling.  Some people will experience allergic dermatitis with a rash and itchy skin, or hives. Read more here.

Birds, especially parakeets and parrots, can cause hypersensitivity pneumonitis.  The affected person (of any age) will notice slowly progressive shortness of breath, a loss of energy, low fever, and slow weight gain.  This can become quite serious so don’t ignore it.  (The bird will likely have to go.)nasal allergy symptoms

If allergies run in your family you are more likely to develop a pet allergy.  Some experts suggest that pets shouldn’t be introduced into a home until children are at least 6 years old or older but studies have shown that children who live with a dog or cat in the first year of life may have a lower risk of pet allergies than kids who don’t have pets until a later age.  This is a tough decision to make, and it may not be an available decision if pets are in the home before a child is born.

Trying to determine whether a baby or toddler is allergic to a pet can be a challenge.  A child will continue to have symptoms for a few days once they are out of the house and away from the pet.  It could require removing the pet from the house for a few weeks to see if all of the symptoms stop.

For more information on what happens when you have an allergic reaction, read this post.



Further Complications

Chronic inflammation of nasal passages due to a pet allergy can lead to sinus infections.  Instead of draining properly, mucus remains stuck in the swollen sinuses and can finally become infected.

Another problem that pet owners can run into is aggravation of their asthma, or a child’s asthma.  An asthma sufferer may notice difficulty breathing, tightness in their chest, wheezing, or coughing when around pets.  If the reaction is significant enough and the asthma cannot be well controlled, your beloved pet may need to live with someone else.



Hypoallergenic pets

It is debatable whether any pet can be fully hypoallergenic and “safe” for allergy sufferers, except snakes, turtles, iguanas, and fish which don’t shed anything.  Allergic dander, skin cells, and saliva is not affected by the amount that a cat or dog sheds or by the length of their hair, or by the size of the animal.  Even hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, and birds can cause allergic reactions.


Reducing The Reactions To Cats And Dogs

It may be possible to decrease the level of dander and allergens by bathing an animal on a regular basis, twice a week at least is best.  Using special products such as Allerpet may help decrease allergens further.   There are many items available to help decrease allergens from cats or dogs.  Less shedding may be helpful, but not a cure.  A smaller animal may also be better than a larger one – less allergen to shed.

When it comes to cats it is felt that males produce more allergens than females, intact males produce more than neutered males, and dark cats produce more than light-colored ones so a light colored spayed female cat may be best.

Some of the breeds that are considered your better bet if you are allergic to dogs are:

  • Bedlington Terrier
  • Bichon Frise
  • Chinese Crested—hairless or powderpuff
  • Irish Water Spaniel
  • Kerry Blue Terrier
  • Labradoodle
  • Maltese
  • Poodle—toy, miniature, standard
  • Portuguese Water Dog
  • Schnauzers—miniature, standard, giant
  • Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier
  • Xoloitzcuintli (an almost hairless dog, a coated version is also available)–toy, miniature, standard

Hypoallergenic cat

Breeds to look for if you are allergic to cats include:

  • Devon Rex
  • Cornish Rex
  • Sphynx (an almost hairless cat)
  • Balinese
  • Oriental Shorthair
  • Javanese
  • Siberian
  • Russian Blue


Allerca is a company that produces pets that are free of the major allergens.  The biggest problem is that this may not be enough to stop a person’s allergic reaction to the animal.  Animals can produce other symptom-triggering allergens.  These pets are very pricey.



What to do if you just can’t get rid of your pet

There really is no remedy to cure an allergy to a pet but there are many things you can do to improve the situation.  Saline nasal rinsing can be helpful to clear allergens from your nasal passages.  Changing clothes right after playing with a pet, even taking a quick shower (don’t forget to wash hair too), will help decrease allergens on your body (or your child’s body) which should help you feel better.  Never touch your face, eyes, or nose with hands that have been touching an animal until you have washed your hands thoroughly.

Minimizing contact with the animal will help.  Keep the pet out of your bedroom or the child’s bedroom, and consider limiting them to only certain other rooms.  Any carpets or upholstered furniture will hold dander so limiting their time on these can help.  Covering the furniture with easily washable clothes will make it easier to keep the dander level down.  A HEPA (high-energy particulate air) filter on your furnace and air conditioner will also remove more allergens.  Leaving the fan running constantly will create a whole-house air purifier.  Change the filter monthly.  Air purifiers in rooms you inhabit most may decrease allergens in those rooms.

Gas mask air filter

A last resort??

Since allergens can attach themselves to other pollutants it is good to keep a clean house.  The less dust that is available for allergens to attach to, the better off you should be.  Wood floors are easier to deal with than allergen-trapping rugs.  Using a HEPA filter on your vacuum may help catch more dander and skin cells.  Remember that it takes 2 hours for anything you stir up while cleaning to settle down again.  Groom pets and clean boxes and cages outside of your home whenever possible.  Consider wiping the animal down with a damp washcloth or Allerpet daily.  An interesting thought—pets with long hair can more readily pick up other allergens on their fur, so short haired pets may be preferable.

When the allergy is not too bad you may find that using antihistamines will be enough relief.  If one antihistamine doesn’t seem to work, try a different one as each antihistamine works differently for different people.  Of course, you may need to take them almost continuously, but having the pet can be worth it.

Allergy shots (immunotherapy) can work.  In as many as 65% of people with allergies to cats there was a nice response, but it could take a year or two before it is really working well.  Allergy shots may also prevent more severe allergy symptoms in the future.  Work with an allergy specialist to determine if allergy shots are right for you or your child.



If you are dealing with pet allergies in the home, there may be solutions to the problem short of getting rid of the animal.  Investigate and experiment with what you can do to ease symptoms.  Only if the symptoms are serious, such as asthma attacks, must a pet be sent to a new home.

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