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Living With Allergies And Pets: A Guide

Living With Allergies And Pets: A Guide

Written by:
Dr. Shuba Iyengar, MD, MPH
Dr. Shuba Iyengar, MD, MPH
After graduating from UC Berkeley, Shuba completed medical school at Duke University, earning her MPH in tandem at UNC. After a research fellowship at the NIH, Shuba completed her residency at Stanford, then fellowship in allergy-immunology at Boston Childrens/Harvard.

Shuba returned to the Bay Area to join Dr. Bocian at a large multi-speciality health system where she helped lead an allergy practice. She cofounded Allermi to make expert allergy care more accessible for all.

Pets are a joy to have around, even for those who suffer from allergies. If you've been diagnosed with a pet allergy, you may believe that the only solution is to give up your furry friend. However, there are options that can enable you to keep your pets while effectively managing your allergies. In fact, many people with non-life-threatening allergies are able to happily live with their pets.  In fact, based on our clinical experience, we have found that many of our patients will eventually tolerate their new pet after the first 8-12 months. 

It's essential to understand your allergies. A visit to the doctor for an allergy test will determine what allergies you have. Surprisingly, you may be allergic to something else entirely and not your pet. For instance, you could be allergic to a specific grass pollen that your pet picked up on their fur while out for a walk.

If the allergy test shows that you are allergic to cat or dog, it's important to understand what causes your allergic reaction. Allergens, which are allergy-triggering proteins found in saliva and skin glands, stick to an animal's dry skin (dander) and fur. The fur and dander then cling to walls, carpets, clothing, and, most importantly, bedding. Oftentimes, we have found keeping the pet out of the bedroom and putting an air purifier in the bedroom can significantly reduce symptoms.

Reactions to these allergens vary from person to person, ranging from mild sniffling and sneezing to life-threatening asthma. If a person is exposed to other allergens, such as pollen, dust mites, cigarette smoke, and mold, their reaction can be worsened.

Whether a person has an allergic reaction depends on both the individual and the animal. A person with animal allergies may react less to dogs with soft, constantly growing hair, or one specific cat or dog may cause more or less of an allergic reaction than another animal of another breed.

You may have heard of breeds of dogs and cats that are non-allergenic or hypoallergenic. However, even hairless breeds can cause severe allergic reactions. Based on our clinical experience, we have found that most of our patient’s symptoms vary depending on the breed of the animal. Therefore, we sometimes have our patients “babysit” different breeds of animals to see how they do before adopting a new pet.

Overall, it's important to understand your allergies and develop a plan to manage them so you can continue to enjoy the companionship of your furry friends.

Tips for Reducing Allergens and Symptoms to Live Comfortably with Your Pet

If you or a family member are experiencing allergy symptoms due to a pet, there are several ways to minimize indoor allergens and live comfortably with your furry friend.

Follow these five steps to alleviate allergy symptoms:

1. Establish an "allergy-free" zone in your home, especially in the bedroom of the affected person. Keep the pet out of this area. You can use a high-efficiency HEPA air cleaner and impermeable covers for mattresses and pillows to reduce allergens.

2. Utilize HEPA air cleaners throughout the rest of your home and avoid furnishings that tend to collect dust and dander, such as cloth curtains, blinds, and carpeted floors. Regularly clean your home with a thorough dusting and washing of items like couch covers, pillows, curtains, and pet beds.

3. Bathe your pet once a week to minimize the level of allergen-causing dander. Cats can be trained to like baths, but make sure to use shampoo specifically designed for them. Consult a veterinarian or reputable pet care book for instructions on safe bathing practices.

4. Don't solely blame your pet for allergies. Ask your allergist to test you or your family member for pet dander allergies, as many people are sensitive to multiple allergens. To reduce allergens overall, address all potential causes, not just the pet allergy.

5. Consider treatments. Immunotherapy, steroidal and antihistamine nose sprays, and antihistamine pills are additional treatments for pet allergies.

Find an allergist who understands your desire to live with your pet, and use a combination of methods like medical control of symptoms, good housekeeping practices, and immunotherapy to achieve the best results

Your Doctor's Questions and What to Expect

To ensure that you receive the best possible care, your doctor may ask a series of questions. Being prepared to answer them will help you save time and allow you to focus on more important issues. Some of the questions your doctor may ask include:

  • When did your symptoms first appear?
  • Are there any specific times of the day when your symptoms are more severe?
  • Are your symptoms worse in certain areas of your home?
  • Do you have pets, and do they have access to your bedroom?
  • What self-care techniques have you tried, and have they been effective?
  • What seems to worsen your symptoms, if anything?

Asthma Concerns
If you have already been diagnosed with asthma and are struggling to manage the condition, your doctor may discuss the possibility of allergies with you. Allergies are a significant contributing factor to asthma, but their impact isn't always immediately clear.

Pollen allergies tend to have a seasonal impact, making it easier to recognize the symptoms. In contrast, pet allergies can occur all year round, even if you don't have any pets of your own. This can make it difficult to identify the cause of your symptoms.

What You Can Do in the Meantime
If you suspect that you may have a pet allergy, take steps to reduce your exposure. Try to keep pets out of your bedroom and off upholstered furniture. After touching pets, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly and change your shirt.

Frequently Asked Questions About Pet Allergies

Which pets are the most common source of pet allergens?
Although any pet can produce allergens, cats and dogs are the most common source of pet allergens. However, there are other pets that can cause allergies, including rabbits, rodents (rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils and guinea pigs), birds, and horses.

Do hypoallergenic pets exist?
Many people believe that certain breeds of furry pets are hypoallergenic and won't cause allergic reactions because they shed less fur. However, studies have shown that there aren't any hypoallergenic furry animals, since pet allergens are more than just fur.

It is important to note that if you have pet allergies, certain breeds of furry pets may cause minor symptoms or no symptoms at all, but healthcare providers and researchers cannot accurately predict which breeds will be the least irritating. However,  as allergists, we sometimes have our patients “babysit” different breeds of animals to see how they do before adopting a new pet.

Animals without fur or feathers, such as amphibians (frogs, toads, and salamanders), fish, and reptiles (lizards, snakes, and turtles), are the least likely to cause pet allergies.

Who can be affected by pet allergies?
Anyone can be affected by pet allergies. However, if your biological parents have allergies, you are more likely to have or develop allergies as well. Specific allergies are not inherited, mainly the tendency to become allergic.