How to Live with Allergies to Pets
Author, Stacey Kalinnikova, BVetTech for Professional Pet Sitting Etc.
Pet allergies are a common occurrence affecting almost 15% of people in the United States of America. Knowing the allergy causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment can help owners make an informed decision on how to live with pet allergies and coexist with their beloved pets.
What causes allergies?
Allergic reactions occur when people with overly sensitive immune systems react to harmless stimulants. Contrary to popular belief, allergies are not triggered by pet fur but by proteins secreted from the skin glands. The proteins attach to dead skin cells and are commonly known as dander.
Similar allergens (substances that trigger an allergic reaction) are found in animals’ saliva and urine which can collect on the fur. Cat and dog fur may also carry other allergens such as pollen or dust. Allergens can also float in the environment and collect on surfaces such as furniture where they linger for extended periods. These allergens can remain at high levels for several months even if the pet is removed from the home.
All animals secrete proteins from their sebaceous (skin) glands. Pets that are described as ‘hypo-allergenic’ due to their hairless dispositions (such as Sphynx cats or Chinese crested dogs) still produce dander and can still cause allergies. They may, however, trigger less symptoms due to the lack of hair coat for dander to stick to.
Dogs and cats are the most common household pets so are most commonly associated with pet allergies. Other small pets such as rabbits, rodents, or caged birds can also be allergy culprits.
Allergies are most often triggered when allergens land on the mucous membranes of the nose and eyes. They can also occur when an animal scratches or licks their owner causing a localised inflammatory reaction. Airborne dander can be inhaled into the lungs causing respiratory difficulty.
Symptoms vary depending on sensitivity to the allergens. In minor cases they may not appear until a day or two after contact. Symptoms include:
- Watery eyes
- Runny nose
- Redness of the skin
- Rashes or hives
- Tightness in the chest
- Difficulty breathing
Diagnosis of pet allergies is based on history, clinical signs, physical examination, and allergen testing. Allergen testing involves either a skin prick or blood test to detect the allergen specific to pet dander. Allergen testing is important because although symptoms may only appear near pets, they may actually be the result of pollen or outdoor dust that the pet has carried inside on their coat.
Allergen testing is not always conclusive. Doctors will often suggest eliminating exposure to pets in order to determine the correlation between allergy symptoms and pets. Removing the dog or cat from the home is often ineffective as allergens and dander can linger at high levels in the home for months. To test allergy symptoms using this theory, it may be necessary to spend an extended time away from any environments containing pets.
Reducing allergens and symptoms
The easiest way to reduce pet allergens and symptoms in the environment is to prevent dander and dust from building up.
Build up of allergens in the environment can be prevented with the use of HEPA (“High Efficiency Particulate Air”) filters and the maintenance of ventilation and air flow. The environment should be cleaned and dusted to remove dander and pet hair. Dander can be dispersed by opening windows to let fresh air circulate and pet hair can be removed with daily vacuuming. Walls and surfaces should be dusted regularly. Bedding and blankets should be washed often.
Personal health and hygiene is another important factor in reducing allergy symptoms. The stronger an individual’s immune system, the more resistant they will be to pet allergens. The immune system can be boosted by healthy eating, regular exercise, abstaining from smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, and lowering stress levels. Individuals who suffer from pet allergies should practice strict hygiene after contact with their pets. Hands should be washed immediately after contact and pets should be limited from certain areas of the house such as the bedroom.
Treatments and therapies
There are a number of treatments and therapies targeted at helping people lessen their allergies to their pets. Over the counter or prescription medications available include antihistamines and eye drops. Homeopathic remedies are also available as an alternative to conventional treatments.
Long term treatment options include allergen immunotherapy and rush immunotherapy. Immunotherapy involves a series of injections to expose the body to allergens in increasing dosages in order to decrease the body’s sensitivity. Immunotherapy works by building up tolerance or immunity to the allergens. Rush immunotherapy can speed up the initial stage of treatment by giving the beginning phase of injections every few hours instead of every few days. Patients undergoing immunotherapy will need regular allergy injection ‘boosters’ usually once per month and treatment can continue for several years. The treatment is very effective if managed well.
Many people will find that their allergy symptoms in respect to their own pets will decrease over time. A combination of environmental changes and supplements or medications can help to build up a resistance to certain animals. There are definitely more options available than having to re-home your beloved pet!
The following resources contain useful information on living with pet allergies:
ASPCA – General Pet Care – Are You Allergic to Your Pet?
Paw Rescue – Allergies to Pets
The Asthma Centre
American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology – Pet Allergy
Healthline – Living with Cat Allergies
Animal Planet – Do anti-dander pet shampoos really work?
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