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Allergies to Pets

By Robin Tierney

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Studies show that 10 to 15% of the U.S. population is allergic to companion animals. Even so, the National Institutes of Health estimates that 25% of people with allergy- and asthma-related health problems keep pets in their home. And the Humane Society of the United States estimates that one-third of Americans who are allergic to cats live with at least one cat anyway. In a study of 341 adults who were allergic to cats or dogs and had been advised by their physicians to give up their pets, only one out of five did. Furthermore, 122 of them obtained another pet after a previous one had died.

Evidently, many people believe the benefits of pet companionship outweigh the hardships of pet allergies.

For people with allergies, living comfortably with a companion animal requires knowledge about allergies and allergy management -- and willingness to follow some sensible, practical rules.

Facts about Allergies to Companion Animals

  • Fur is not the problem. Many people still wrongly assume that animal allergies are caused by pet fur or feathers. In reality, allergies are triggered and aggravated by proteins secreted by oil glands and shed with dander ... proteins in saliva, which adheres to fur when animals lick themselves ... and proteins in urine. Dander is the microscopic particles of skin, fur and hair that animals continually shed. Such proteins and other substances that cause an individual's immune system to react are called allergens.
  • Allergens are tiny particles that can be easily transferred via air, physical contact and other means. As noted, animal allergens are present in dander, saliva, urine and secretions on feathers (thus, people can be allergic to many different species). By the way, compounding the dander on pets is the saliva left behind when the animal licks himself.
  • Of course, there are dozens of allergens from non-animal sources, including molds, mildew, pollen, ragweed and so on.
  • When the allergens land on the lining of the eyes and nose, and/or are inhaled into the lungs, allergic symptoms result. Typical symptoms are sneezing, runny nose, itchy swelling eyes and congestion. For some allergic individuals, allergen contact with the person's skin may also cause itching and hives. Some people experience potentially life-threatening asthma attacks as their airways become closed by the allergic reactions.
  • The severity of reaction to these allergens varies from one person to the next, ranging from mild sniffling to severe asthma, and are very often compounded by allergies to other allergens and irritants in the environment.
  • Symptoms often occur quickly within minutes after exposure to allergens. For some people, the bodily reactions may build up over several hours and be most severe 12 hours after they have discontinued contact with the animal.
  • Contrary to popular belief, there are no "non-allergenic" breeds of dogs or cats. While some people believe that the tightly woven fur of breeds such as poodles and bichon frises limits the shedding of allergen-laden dander, other people have had allergic reactions even to fur-less breeds. In fact, one dog or cat of a particular breed may be more irritating to an individual allergy sufferer than another animal of that same breed. Size can be a factor, since a large dog would logically shed more dander than a toy breed.
  • Typically, allergic folks are more sensitive to and display more severe reactions to cats than to dogs.
  • Individuals who are allergic to animals can suffer symptoms whether or not an animal is present. In fact, even when the pet no longer resides in the home, his or her allergens remain as particles, often at levels that can continue to trigger allergic symptoms.
  • For pet lovers, it is not only possible, but essential, to find an allergy specialist who understands your commitment to living with an animal companion. A good allergy specialist can develop a plan to help manage the allergy/asthma and prevent episodes. A combination medical control of symptoms, good housecleaning, designation of a pet-free zone and careful pet handling practices (such as washing hands, hugging/nuzzling restrictions) is usually effective, enabling an allergic person to live with pets. Effective measures follow.
Handling and Grooming Pets
  • Whenever possible, have someone other than the allergic person handle pet grooming, litterbox and pet cage/carrier maintenance, and house cleaning chores. Remember, animal allergens are present in dander, saliva and urine.
  • If the allergic person has to groom the pet, he or she should wear a dust-filtering mask. It's smart to use such masks when cleaning the house or painting. Wearing gloves can also help. In any case, wash hands immediately afterwards, before there's a chance of rubbing nose or eyes, or touching the mouth, with allergen-laden hands.
  • After handling animals, the allergic person should immediately wash hands and arms. This will prevent the spread of allergens to the nose, eyes and mouth, thus greatly reducing the chance of an allergic episode. It won't hurt to wash your face at the same time.
  • Try to comb and brush pets outside, or on a hard floor. Then mop, sweep up or vacuum the area immediately after brushing. If the person doing the cleaning has allergies, he or she should avoid inhaling the particles and wash hands right afterwards.
  • After close handling, or exposure to a pet in someone else's home, try to bathe or shower and put your clothes into the laundry.
  • There are allergens outdoors, from pollen to ragweed, that get on pets' coats. So after walking or playing outdoors, you can avoid problems by combing and brushing the dog upon returning to the house.
  • Also, times of excitement or stress lead to increased shedding, so brush the dog in response.
  • Bathing pets weekly can reduce the level of allergens on fur by as much as 84%, according to the Humane Society of the United States. You may not need to bathe your pet each week, but it might help to bathe the pet at least monthly, and weekly if the pet tends to shed a lot of dander or get dirty. Use a mild soap. One good homemade formula: combine liquid Joy dishwashing soap, white vinegar and glycerin. Some cat folks use simple distilled water. Others use baby shampoo to neutralize dander and saliva, and reduce shedding.
  • Be sure, though, to monitor your pet's coat. Bathing too frequently will dry the pet's skin and may increase shedding of dander. Other folks find that frequent brushing also helps by distributing oil throughout the coat while removing loose fur and skin flakes.
  • Brush a pet's fur after a bath and apply a gentle moisturizer or conditioner.
  • Between baths you can rub down the pet (particularly helpful after walks and romps outdoors) with a damp paper towel or better yet, the special allergy wipes now available online and at many pet supply stores. This measure will remove loose fur and dander along with any outside allergy-triggering substances that may hitchhike on the pet's fur. If tap water irritates your pet's skin, switch to distilled water (a good choice even if your pet's skin is not sensitive).
  • Dust frequently, using damp cloths to prevent the rerelease of particles into the home environment.
  • Pickup products: There are special disposable wipes sold by pet product companies that provide a handy way to remove loose fur. Also, tape pickup rolls and similar devices remove fur from clothes, bedding, draperies. Other handy items: disposable dusting cloths and mitts that pick up fur using electrostatic attraction, and static breaker devices that release the static charge that bonds pet fur to rugs and furnishings.
  • Vacuum using HEPA/micro filters or double bags. Dispose of bags before they get overly full. Allergic people should avoid handling vacuum bags.
  • Operate the furnace or central air conditioning fan continuously for at least two hours after vacuuming.
  • People with serious respiratory allergies and asthma should wear a mask to filter the air when grooming the dog or cleaning the house.
  • Clean areas where the pet sleeps, plays and eats twice a week.
  • Wash pet bedding frequently in hot water. Same goes for people bedding. Detergent for sensitive skin is recommended.
  • Aim to clean litterboxes daily. Either a non-allergic person should handle such chores, or the allergic person should wear a face mask ... and of course, wash hands immediately afterwards.
  • Wash rubber, plastic and other hard-surfaced pet toys in the sink with mild soap and hot water to remove saliva, which, containing protein, is an allergen. Rinse with clean water and dry with a clean, soft cloth.
  • Carpet and room deodorizers and baking soda can reduce and eliminate pet odors. You can place a fabric softener sheet sealed in an envelope under a sofa cushion where pets tend to sit or beneath car seats to help keep those areas smelling fresh -- but make sure to keep these sheets out of the reach of children and pets to prevent accidental ingestion.
  • When possible, have a non-allergic person handle cleaning chores.
Environmental Control
  • Keep pets out of the allergic person's bedroom; make it an allergen-free zone. For increased protection, use a high-efficiency HEPA air cleaner in this bedroom.
  • Elsewhere in the home, keep them off beds and other furniture. When pets get on furniture, they leave behind proteins that act as allergens, triggering allergic reactions in allergy sufferers.
  • If your pets tend to sneak on furniture when you're not home, cover couches and chairs with attractive, washable throws. Then wash the throws frequently.
  • As much as possible, keep pets out of rooms with carpets and upholstered furniture, since it's harder to remove dander particles from fibers and fabrics.
  • Many people report that air filters and air purifiers are an immense help. The many choices available today include ionic, electronic and HEPA filter models. These appliances remove most airborne particles. To choose the right model, consider the size of the room or space in which the air filtration unit will be placed, the number of times per hour the air will be completely cycled, and the size of the particles the system will handle (the smaller, the better).
  • Remember to change the filters frequently. You may want to use one in the allergic person's bedroom and another, higher-capacity unit for the main living area in the home.
  • Place filters on air ducts. Use higher grade air handler filters, such as pleated electrostatic types that you should change at least every two months; monthly is better. Many people find the permanent, washable electrostatic models even more effective.
  • Replace fabric upholstered furniture with non-fabric alternatives when possible.
  • Replace carpeting with tile, wood, vinyl or other hard flooring. This makes cleaning easier. Carpet holds dust, dander and other allergens that are very hard to remove even with diligent vacuuming, as these particles work down into the fibers and get into the underlying carpet pad. If you have wall-to-wall carpeting, periodic steam cleaning is recommended.
  • The more washable surfaces and materials in the home, the better. Use curtains that can easily come down for a wash every couple of months. Avoid heavy carpets and draperies, overstuffed furniture, dust-collecting blinds, and accessories that tend to attract dander and dust. For example, rough textured fabrics tend to hold allergens.
  • Special impermeable pillow and mattress covers help not only people allergic to dust mites, but also those sensitive to other allergens, since allergen particles can easily be brought into the room on clothes and other objects. At the very least, use bedding and comforters that are easy to wash. And again, allergic folks should not allow pets on beds and other furniture.
  • Avoid use of aerosols, sprays, paints, insecticides, chemicals, epoxy, and heavy fragrances in the home, especially when the allergy sufferer is home. And of course, ban smoking in the home. These irritants trigger allergy symptoms and compound the effects of allergens such as pet dander, dust mites and pollen.
  • Don't use flea bombs, which have triggered serious attacks in asthma sufferers.
  • Move litterboxes away from air filtration intake vents to prevent circulating allergens throughout the central air handling system.
  • Unless the allergic family member is very sensitive to outdoor allergens, or the outdoor air is polluted or has high levels of seasonal allergens, open windows once in awhile to refresh the indoor air.
  • Air circulation and ventilation is helpful. But do not use ceiling fans, since they stir up dust, molds and dander.
  • Clean window air-conditioning units and humidifiers regularly to avoid growth of molds and mildew.
  • Use a toweled or damp towel to remove dirt, mud and other grime from pet paws before they can track it inside the house. Wipe your own hands, too.
  • Putting doggie sweaters and similar clothing on a dog can help control the release of dander, reduce shedding, and protects the pet's skin from indoor and outdoor climate conditions (which in turn has allergy symptom-abating benefits, since better health can mean less potent dander and oil secretions). Remember to wash doggie clothes, as well as fabric collars, from time to time.
  • By the way, keep in mind that fatigue and stress can weaken one's immune system, which in turn can aggravate allergies.
Nutritional Strategies
  • You can feed your pet essential vitamins, nutrients and fatty acid supplements with Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids to help the skin retain moisture. This often reduces shedding.
  • Poor skin health can result from feeding a lower quality food or food that contains something the dog may be allergic to. For example, typical foods sold in regular grocery stores contain fillers that can disagree with canine digestion and lead to increased shedding and skin flaking. So feed pets high quality food. Also, avoid foods filled with corn and wheat.
  • Also, if your pet has any skin problems, get your pet examined by vet. The cause could be a treatable hormonal or thyroid problem, or mange, or bacterial dermatitis, or fleas. Whatever the problem, you'll want to get it treated, since such conditions will hurt the dog's health while amping up the potency of the allergens in his dander, saliva and urine.
Banishing pets outdoors? Why this is bad advice
  • For years, some doctors have dispensed the pat, and bad, advice to keep pets outdoors to avoid allergic reactions. If a family member is allergic to animals, having animals in the house can lead to allergic reactions. However, as studies have shown, allergens will exist inside the home even if pets no longer live there. Plus spending long periods outdoors will affect the health of the pet, leading to more dander and body chemistry changes that will make him a more potent allergy trigger -- in addition to the dirt, pollen, ragweed, grass and other outdoor allergens that will accumulate on his body. When household members interact with the dog, they will carry these allergens back into the house.
  • And of course, living outdoors is no place for a companion animal. Exiling a dog outdoors is bad for the dog and detrimental to the relationship between the dog and family members. For details, see the Dog Tip about dogs kept outdoors, which contain links to other important webpages. It's at http://www.paw-rescue.org/PAW/PETTIPS/DogTip_BackyardDogs.php
More Allergy Facts and Findings: Putting Things in Perspective
  • Individuals with allergies and allergy-induced asthma are allergic to more than one allergen (substances triggering the body's reaction). Other allergens include mold, mildew, pollen, dust and dust mites, plants, foods, cosmetics. Allergy sufferers can have varying degrees of sensitivity to different allergens. Whether someone displays symptoms depends on how many of the offending allergens are in the environment at the same time; in combination, they can exceed the individual's allergy threshold, triggering allergic reactions.
  • It's easy for doctors to make the generic, age-old recommendation to "get rid of pets." However, even when it's certain that a person is allergic to dog or cat dander, saliva and urine, it's wrong to assume that eliminating an animal will free the person from future symptoms. Clearly, it's important to be aware of all of the individual's allergy triggers and take steps to minimize exposure. Other measures should be tried before giving up a family pet.
  • Many families have described the sad experience of giving up a pet on the recommendation of a physician, only to find out that the child (or other family member) still experiences allergic reactions. They wish they had first tried other measures to manage the family member's allergy.
  • While there are some situations in which the allergic person suffers such severe symptoms that rehoming the pet is among the steps necessary, in more cases, the allergy sufferer and pet can coexist comfortably in the same household by taking sensible, practical measures.
  • In recent years, science has advanced the understanding and management of allergies and asthma, enabling most families to keep pets in the home. Successful management combines good hygiene, diligent cleaning, air quality management, sensible pet handling, and prudent use of safe, effective medications.
  • Find an allergy specialist who understands your commitment to living with your pet. Your specialist will develop a plan to help manage the allergy/asthma and prevent allergic episodes.
  • Regardless of exposure to animals, a good allergy management plan includes prescription medications. Great strides have been made in allergy and asthma medicines in recent years, so be sure to consult with an allergy/asthma specialist. Medical treatments for pet allergy symptoms include steroid and antihistamine nose sprays and pills. Asthma management typically involves a combination of preventive and symptom control medications, often in inhaler form.
  • Allergy sufferers should always keep their medications on hand and make sure to refill prescriptions before the expiration dates. Don't wait for symptoms to get out of hand. Use medications as prescribed to prevent the onset of problems, from sneezing, coughing and other respiratory symptoms to the airway constriction associated with asthma.
  • Reactions to airborne allergens tend to peak between 4 a.m. to 10 a.m., so it's advisable to take medications before bedtime.
  • Studies indicate that immunotherapy can improve but usually not eliminate allergic symptoms. Cat and dog allergen immunotherapy appears to work better in cases where the patient has only occasional, unavoidable exposure, rather than in cases where the animal stays in the home all of the time.
  • Giving up a pet without making a committed effort to first try other measures teaches children that pets are disposable. It also sends messages of helplessness and that there's only one way to solve a problem. And all too often, giving up the pet does not solve the allergy problem. Particularly when the allergic symptoms persist, the child shares a feeling of failure. If the child shared a bond with the animal, the loss will also serve as an unhappy life-lesson. Parting with a beloved animal companion is an emotionally wrenching experience.
Recent Animal Allergy Research Studies

* Very early exposure to animals can have positive benefits. Being around cats and dogs during infancy may actually reduce the chances that a child will develop allergies later in life, according to a 2001 Swedish study of 412 children. The children were given relatively painless skin prick tests for allergies at age 7 years and again at age 12. Of those children who were not around cats or dogs during the first year of life, nearly 9 percent developed asthma, compared to about 3 percent of children who were around pets. Allergies also developed in nearly 9 percent of children in the no-pet group vs. about 6 percent in the pet group. The researchers concluded that exposure to pets during infancy might have a protective effect on later allergy development.

In a 2003 study of 2,500 children, allergist Thomas Platts-Mills of the University of Virginia and Swedish researchers found that the longer children had pets when they are young -- ideally during their first two years -- the lower their frequency of having pet allergies is years later. The children were tested for allergies between ages 7 and 8 and again four years later. Children who continually owned pets were less likely to have pet dander allergies than new pet owners or those who had only been exposed earlier in life. In fact, of those who proved to be allergic to cats, 80% never had a cat at home.

A study the prior year found babies raised in a home with two or more dogs or cats were up to 77% less likely to develop various types of allergies at age 6 than kids raised without pets. Besides pet allergies, those children were less likely to develop reactions to dust mites, ragweed, and grass.

"Based on these findings, we can certainly say that if you are considering getting rid of the animal because you want to have children and are worried about their allergies, there is no reason to do that," Platts-Mills said. However, the doctor is not suggesting that parents get a pet if the family does not already have one. His study was conducted in Sweden, where dust mite allergies are less common than in the U.S. Since pets produce more dust, having dogs and cats can potentially aggravate dust mite allergies in people vulnerable to them. Platt-Mills said, "because of this and other studies, we now believe that while pet dander is a potent allergen in some children, it may also produce a tolerance in others. Having a pet goes both ways."

One theory suggests that high pet allergen exposure may lead to changes in the immune system so that it is less likely to produce an allergic response.

Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta also found that having pets may actually decrease children's risk of developing allergies. Dennis R. Ownby, chief of Allergy and Immunology at the College, followed 474 babies from birth to age 7 to find that children exposed to two or more indoor pets were less than half as likely to develop common allergies -- not only to pet secretions, but also to ragweed, dust mites and grass. Ownby also shares the belief of many modern medical researchers that so many kids have allergies and asthma is due to overly clean environments.

When kids play with cats and dogs, explained Ownby, the licks they receive transfer enough Gram-negative bacteria to change the way the child's immune system responds. On a related note, some studies from Germany and Switzerland indicate that children of farmers, who are regularly exposed to animals, have less allergies than children in urban areas.

Note: Parents who smoke wipe out the anti-allergy benefits their infants receive from early pet exposure, according to Medical College of Georgia researchers.

* Pet dander is present in nearly all homes in the United States -- including those without any animals. This was the key finding of a research study published in the July 2004 Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Dogs and cats lived in only half of the residences examined in the study, conducted by the National Institute of Environment Health Sciences Institute. Results suggest that people who are sensitive to cat and/or dog allergens are highly likely to be exposed to detectable levels of those allergens in their environment regardless of where they live.

The researchers used data from the National Survey of Lead and Allergens in Housing, in which surveyors collected vacuumed dust samples from beds, bedroom and living room floors and living room sofas in 831 housing units in 75 randomly selected locations around the United States.

Dog and cat allergens were detected in 100 percent and 99.9 percent of homes, respectively, even though only 49.1 percent of the homes actually had such a pet.

Interestingly, the researchers found that dog and cat allergen levels were higher among households belonging to demographic groups in which dog or cat ownership was more prevalent, regardless of whether or not the household had a pet. Because dog and cat allergens can be transported on clothing and shoes, the researchers speculated that the community, particularly where dog or cat ownership is high, may be a primary source of these pet allergens. For pet-allergic patients in such communities, allergen avoidance may be difficult.

The vacuum samples revealed that sofas had the highest concentrations of allergens, even in homes without pets, again suggesting that residents and/or visitors brought the allergen material in on their clothing.

Researchers noted that cat dander is a very hardy antigen that stays in the environment for years after a cat is gone. People with severe allergies can reduce their risk by using high-efficiency filters and avoiding plush furniture and carpet.

Other research has shown dog and cat allergens to be prevalent in places like bus seats, park benches, theater seats and waiting rooms in hospitals and allergists' offices. Therefore, "it may be that people who are very allergic to dogs and cats may have to rely on medications as opposed to avoiding exposure," said scientist Samuel Arbes, who worked with Darryl Zeldin on the study.

Before Getting a Pet

Pets are not disposable. They are living beings who form attachments to their people and depend on their people to take care of them.

Tragically, too many people with allergic family members get pets without thinking through the difficulties of living with them. It is sad for everyone to give up a pet, and so many animals lose their lives just for this reason.

So before adding a pet to the family, please carefully think through the decision, discuss thoroughly with all household members, consider who can and will follow through on pet care responsibilities, really understand the measures you all must take to manage pets in a home with an allergy sufferer, and be realistic about the commitment you can reasonably make. If you aren't sure you will be able to keep the dog or cat or other pet for life, there are other ways to enjoy animal companionship ... from volunteering with an animal shelter to petsitting for friends.

If there's a chance that anyone in the home has or may develop allergies, take these steps:

  • Take your children (or any other family member prone to allergies) to a board-certified allergy specialist for a comprehensive evaluation. If you have a pet, try to find a specialist who understands your commitment to your animal and who also has experience with this situation. In addition to discussing your concerns and options with the specialist, also read articles to broaden your understanding of allergies and how to cope with -- and reduce episodes of -- allergic symptoms.
  • Discuss treatment options, which may include daily preventive/maintenance medications and "rescue" medications to use at the first sign of an allergy or asthma attack.
  • Decide if your family can and will follow the recommended regimen, so that if you do decide to bring a pet into your family, you can keep the animal for his or her lifetime.
Other Resources and Information

Allergies to Pets


Cleaning to control allergies and asthma


Nature's Miracle Dander Remover and Deodorizer, Allerpet Allergy Relief and Outright Allergy Relief: these are among products that have proven helpful by reducing dander and the potency of its allergens. Typically, these nontoxic, non-staining liquids are applied topically: rub in and wipe off to clean away dander and soften the pet's skin so less dander is produced.


For more of Robin's Dog Tips, see the index at:  www.paw-rescue.org/PAW/dog_tips.php

Partnership for Animal Welfare
P.O. Box 1074, Greenbelt, MD 20768

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Last Updated: May 05, 2018 (LET) PawSupport