By Tiffany L. Mitchener, DVM
Let me tell you the story of my cousin: Girl meets boy. Girl falls in love with boy. Girl would like to marry boy. But there is one small issue…his beloved cat. Girl has been allergic to cats her whole life. Now what?
Pet allergies are on the rise in the general population. Fifteen percent of Americans are allergic to cats or dogs, with cat allergies twice as common as dog allergies. At the same time, pet ownership is increasing, with significantly more Americans owning pets today than they did thirty years ago. With rising allergies and increasing pet ownership, our scenario illustrates a common relationship issue today. Is there any hope for our “pet-crossed” lovers?
What causes people’s allergies to dogs and cats?
Contrary to popular belief, people are not allergic to the fur of dogs and cats. With dogs, people are allergic to a protein secreted by the oil-producing glands of the dog’s skin and saliva. This protein is released in the dead skin cells (“dander”) and saliva of the dog. With cats, people are allergic to a protein found primarily in the cat’s saliva. Since cats are active groomers, this protein is spread on their haircoat.
When people with pet allergies are exposed to the dog or cat protein (allergen), their immune systems react by going into “overdrive.” Their bodies produce antibodies against the allergen. This starts the chain reaction leading to the common clinical signs of allergies. Depending on their sensitivity, this reaction can occur after direct contact with the pet or by simply stepping into the home where an animal lives. People often complain of symptoms very similar to “hay fever” including coughing, wheezing, red and itchy eyes, a runny nose, and repeated sneezing. Sometimes a mild reaction will be delayed and appear hours after contact with the pet.
Some people who think that they are allergic to animals are actually reacting to pollens or molds carried on the haircoat of the animal, but not to the animal protein itself. Medical allergists strongly recommend allergy testing for anyone experiencing symptoms around dogs and cats. It is important to determine what the inciting allergen is in order to create a plan to help reduce symptoms. In many cases this can be performed by a medical doctor with a skin or blood test.
How do people with pet allergies live with a pet?
First and foremost, it is important to reduce the number of allergens in the environment. A few tips to help make your home pet allergen-free include:
- Replace carpet with hard surface flooring wherever possible.
- Clean fanatically. Regularly clean drapes, furniture and carpets. Use vacuums with incorporated HEPA filters and double thickness dust bags.
- Wash sheets, comforters, and furniture covers twice weekly.
- Keep pets out of bedrooms and closets.
- If your home has central air conditioning and heating, it is recommended to use a central air cleaner with a HEPA filter and place filters on every vent.
- Wipe down the pet’s haircoat daily with a damp washcloth, preferably at bedtime.
It is essential to consult with a medical doctor regarding diagnosis and treatment of your pet allergies. Some tips that have helped people control their pet allergies include:
- Avoid prolonged contact with the pet. Change clothes and wash hands after an extended interaction.
- After consultation with your medical doctor, take appropriate doses of over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines, decongestants, or nasal steroids, which can bring relief.
- Start immunotherapy. A full course of treatment can take years and does not help everyone, but in some situations, allergy shots can be a lifesaver.
Do hypoallergenic pets exist?
There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic pet. Certain dog breeds shed less fur so their dander is less likely to spread throughout the house. But any dog can potentially trigger an allergic reaction in a person. Because there is variation in the canine allergens, a person may have different reactions to individual breeds – even between two dogs of the same breed! Interestingly, it is the opposite with cats. All cats carry the same allergen, and if a person is allergic to cats, they will be allergic to all domestic and wild cats (lions, tigers, etc.).
Is there a way to prevent pet allergies?
Unfortunately, there appears to be a genetic component to pet allergies, so prevention is not always possible. However, being exposed to pets at an early age may help children avoid developing pet allergies. In a study published in the journal Pediatrics, children who lived with a cat or dog in the first year of life had better resistance to upper respiratory infections throughout childhood.
To update the love story: Girl and boy get engaged. Girl undergoes months of immunotherapy. Girl marries boy. Girl and boy live in harmony with his cat and their newly adopted rescue dog. And there is a baby on the way. Now, that is a happy ending!