If you are like many people, you may discover that you have
Cat or dog allergy occurs in approximately
15% of the population. For those with asthma, the percentage jumps to
20-30%. In general, cats produce more severe allergic reactions than dogs.
The allergy is an immune reaction to a protein (an allergen) found in
saliva, dander (dead skin flakes) or urine of an animal. People are not
allergic to the hair of an animal, as many may believe. Rather, the
allergen gets carried in the air on very small, invisible particles. It
then lands on the lining of the eyes (conjunctiva) and nose. It may also
be inhaled directly into the lungs, which causes allergic symptoms.
Allergen contact with an allergic person's skin may also cause itching
Usually symptoms will occur quickly (within minutes) after being exposed
to an animal. For some people, the symptoms may build up over several
hours and be most severe 12 hours after they have discontinued contact
with the animal.
So, what do you do when you find your furry friend
causes you to sneeze,
wheeze and itch?
- Keep the offending pet out of the bedroom. Because so many hours each
day are spent in the bedroom sleeping, just keeping the pet out of this
room will reduce exposure dramatically.
- Bathing the animal weekly will reduce the
amount of allergens that are given off into the environment. You should
consult with your veterinarian for advice regarding care of your
animal's skin to prevent excessive dryness if you are washing your pet
- Have a non-allergic family member brush your pet outside. This will
help remove loose hair and allergens from your pet and will keep down
the amount that is shed indoors.
- Have a non-allergic family member clean out the animal's litter box
or cage. While it is thought that dander and saliva are the source of
cat allergens, urine is the source of allergens in other pets, such as
rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs.
- Allergens accumulate in areas such as carpeting, mattresses, cushions, and
even on vertical and other horizontal surfaces of a room. Since the allergen
particles can go through fabrics, it is suggested that mattresses and cushions
be encased in plastic with a zipper to prevent the release of allergens when
- Vacuuming does not help with allergy problems because it does not
clean the lower levels of the rug, and in fact, stirs up small allergen
particles. Some of these particles can move right through the vacuum, but a
vacuum filter may help prevent this release. Periodic steam cleaning of
wall-to-wall carpeting may be somewhat beneficial. The best solution is to have
a hardwood floor with scatter rugs that can be taken up and washed.
- Replace bedding and carpeting that has animal dander in it. It can
take weeks or months for fabrics to come clean of allergens. In some
homes, animal allergens may persist for a year or more after the animal
has been removed.
- Studies have shown that immunotherapy will improve but not completely
prevent allergic symptoms. Cat and dog allergen immunotherapy works
better in cases where the patient has only occasional, unavoidable
exposure, rather than in cases where the animal stays in the home all of
- If your home is super-insulated, this may not be helping your
allergies. Studies show that energy-saving homes (those built with
triple-glazed windows, with all cracks carefully sealed) keep allergens
as well as the heat in. One study found an allergen level 200% higher in
a super-insulated home than in an ordinary home.
- Home air cleaners, which are designed to reduce airborne allergens
in the indoor environment, may help to eliminate some of the pet dander
and other allergens in your home.
- Medications can be taken to
prevent symptoms if you are only exposed occasionally. These medications
may include antihistamines, decongestants and asthma medications (for
the allergic asthmatic).
Adapted from information provided by the
American Academy of Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology (www.aaaai.org, August 1999).