If being around a cat or dog can cause you to sneeze, have itchy or runny eyes, or develop a skin rash, you may be one of the estimated 10% of the population that is allergic to animals. In dogs and cats, the most common cause of allergies in people is the dander in their skin and coat. In order to understand pet allergies, you must first understand what dander is, how allergies to it can be controlled, and what you can do to peacefully coexist with the dogs and cats in your life.
Contrary to popular belief, the hair of dogs and cats generally does not cause allergies. Instead, it is the dander of the pet causing reactions. Dander is the scales of dead skin that are constantly being shed by all mammals. Dander is similar to dandruff in humans, but much smaller and not usually able to be seen by the naked eye.
Due to its small size and light weight, dander shed from the pet can stay airborne for hours. The allergens in dander are sticky, and can be transported on clothing, and can remain in carpets, mattresses and furniture despite regular cleaning. Because of dander’s lingering presence, it is still possible for one with pet allergies to suffer from symptoms for months, despite pets having been removed from the home.
Pet allergies are common, and many people suffering from allergies have had them most of their lives. As a result, the selection of pets to share the home is generally made with the allergies in mind, and species and breeds that may trigger allergies are avoided. Unfortunately, allergies can also develop suddenly in people who have previously not had them before- presenting a sudden, potentially devastating problem for both human and pet.
For those with pet allergies, allergic reactions occur when they inhale airborne allergens, in the form of pet dander. These minute particles of dander fool the immune system, which treats it as an antibody to be fought against. Histamines are released by the immune system to fight the dander, resulting in sneezing, coughing, itching, and in severe cases, trouble breathing.
Living with allergies, and coexisting with pets, can be tricky- but studies have shown up a third of pet owners also suffer from pet allergies- suggesting that with some careful selection and extra precautions, allergy sufferers and pets can live together peacefully.
If you suffer from allergies, but want to acquire a pet, there are several breeds of dogs considered “hypoallergenic”- meaning they produce less dander. Most of these dogs are also low shedding, or non-shedding breeds, helping to reduce potential allergens. The most well known hypoallergenic and non-shedding dogs are the Poodle (all varieties) and Bichon Frise.
Other hypoallergenic breeds can include:
- Airedale Terrier
- Australian Terrier
- Bouvier des Flandres
- Cairn Terrier
- Chinese Crested
- Chihuahua (Long coated)
- Irish Water Spaniel
- Italian Greyhound
- Schnauzer (Miniature and Giant)
- Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier
Unfortunately for cat fanciers, cat allergies are both more common and generally more aggressive than dog allergies. As in dogs, it is the dander of the cats’ skin that causes most allergies- and this dander can also be excreted on their salvia and urine. However, unlike dogs, there is no common breed of hypoallergenic cat.
In both cats and dogs, it is possible for a person to be allergic to one breed or type of dog, and not another. Many people have reported a greater amount of allergies to Burmese and Tonkinese cats for instance, but no sensitivity to other non-related cats and mixes. In contrast, while not hypoallergenic, some people have found the Rex breed of cat, to be less irritating to allergies as other breeds.
If you suffer from pet allergies, and already have a pet, there are some things you can do to reduce the severity of your reactions.
- Keep pets off of your bed, sheets and furniture, where dander can accumulate, and you spend many hours a night.
- Use an air purifier, to filter the air and remove dander particles from circulation.
- Dogs and cats can be washed specially formulated dander-reducing shampoo to help lessen the shed of dander
- While hair is not a major cause of allergies, the more hair a pet has the more dander is present within their coats. Keeping pets well-groomed, and long haired pets shaved-down can reduce the presence of dander.
- Daily vacuuming with a HEPA filter of furniture and carpets can help to reduce dander in the home, and minimize exposure.
- Cat litter boxes should be placed in a remote location, and the person with allergies should not ever deal with cleaning the litter pan.
In addition to working to control environmental factors, consult your doctor for advise on medication that may be able to keep your allergies at bay. In less severe cases, over the counter antihistamine tablets such as Benadryl could prove beneficial, or other prescription antihistamines, nasal sprays or eye drops may help prevent and treat allergy attacks.
If medications don’t help, a visit to an allergist physician may be in order. After determining exactly what is triggering your allergy, the allergist may be able to provide specialized allergen immunotherapy. These “allergy shots” can help to desensitize the body to the allergen.
Dealing with pet allergies can be a difficult task, especially when the allergy sufferer is already a pet owner. Understanding what dander is, and how to help remove it from the home, can help to make a difficult situation become more manageable.