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Pet allergies 101
This post was co-authored by Dr. Richard Selkowitz, veterinarian, and Dr. Kristy Murray, associate vice-chair for research.
Today is National Puppy Day. Who doesn’t love adorable little pups and their sweet little kisses, puppy breath and soft, cuddly fur? That is until the itchy, watery eyes, itchy skin, runny nose and sneezing appear. Pet allergies can range from a mild inconvenience to downright misery. Below we’ll discuss some common questions regarding pet allergies.
What are pet allergies? People with pet allergies have supersensitive immune systems that react to certain proteins in the pet's dander (dead cells that are shed off the skin), saliva or urine. These proteins are called allergens. Allergens can then collect on fur, walls, clothing and other surfaces. The allergens will not lose their strength for a long time, sometimes for several months.
What are symptoms of pet allergies? When dog and cat allergens land on the mucous membranes that line the eyes and nose, the membranes begin to swell and itch causing a stuffy nose and inflamed eyes. A lick or a scratch from a pet can cause the skin area to become red. If allergen levels are low or sensitivity is minor, symptoms may not appear until after several hours after contact with the pet.
What are some allergy treatment options? If your allergies are severe, the best prevention is to avoid contact with cats or dogs and their dander, and avoid visiting people with pets. If you must come in contact with pets that you are allergic to, many over the counter products contain antihistamines such as Benadryl or Zyrtec can be very helpful in treating pet allergies. Decongestants such as Sudafed and Claritin-D can also be very helpful in reducing pet allergy symptoms.
How do I keep a pet, even though I have an allergy?
- First, let us talk about the benefits of owning a pet. Studies have found owning pets can alleviate stress, depression, lower blood pressure and minimize the risk of heart disease. Pets are especially beneficial to children since they teach responsibility, compassion, and allow for an emotional connection for children with impaired social interactions (i.e., Autism spectrum). Interestingly, children exposed to pets at a very young age actually reduces the chances of developing allergies later on.
- So if you decide a pet would be good for you and your family but are concerned about allergies, then consider fish, snakes, turtles, or a “hypoallergenic” dog or cat. Certain dog and cat breeds have little to no dander. A list of dog breeds can be found on the American Kennel Club website. Purina has also published a list of hypoallergenic cat breeds.
- If you decide to keep a pet that does cause you to suffer from allergies, bar it from the bedroom. You spend from one-third to one-half of your time there. Keep the bedroom door closed and clean the bedroom thoroughly.
- Because animal allergens are sticky, you must remove the animal's favorite furniture, remove wall-to-wall carpet and scrub the walls and woodwork. Keep surfaces throughout the home clean and uncluttered. Bare floors and walls are best.
- If you must have carpet, select ones with a low pile and steam clean them frequently. Better yet, use throw rugs that can be washed in hot water.
- Wear a dust mask to vacuum. Vacuum cleaners stir up allergens that have settled on carpet and make allergies worse. Use a vacuum with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter if possible.
- Forced-air heating and air-conditioning can spread allergens through the house. Cover bedroom vents with dense filtering material like cheesecloth.
- Adding an air cleaner with a HEPA filter to central heating and air conditioning can help remove pet allergens from the air. The air cleaner should be used at least four hours per day. Another type of air cleaner that has an electrostatic filter will remove particles the size of animal allergens from the air. No air cleaner or filter will remove allergens stuck to surfaces, though. (See the Asthma and Allergy Answer factsheet on, "Air Filters.")
- Washing the pet every week may reduce airborne allergens, but is of questionable value in reducing a person's symptoms.
- Have someone without a pet allergy brush the pet outside to remove dander, as well as clean the litter box or cage.