Many of my patients are pet lovers. In fact, the pet population in the United States is over 100 million! And not only is it fun to have a pet, medical studies show that people who have pets have lower blood pressure, less depression, and actually live longer than those who don’t. But sometimes having a pet can mean putting up with their dander, those flaky dots of skin that are shed everywhere. If you’re one of the millions of people with pet allergies, your pet’s dander can start you sneezing with watery eyes and a stuffy nose, or worse.
According to the American Asthma and Allergy Foundation, from 15 to 30% of people with pet allergies are allergic to cats, dogs, and birds, with cat allergies being twice as common as dog or bird allergies. If you find you have an allergy to your cat, dog, or bird, take heart. You likely don’t need to get rid of your pet; you just need to know how to manage your physical reactions to them.
A small amount of people have severe allergies to certain pets and for these people it would be prudent not to be around these types of animals. However, like most of my patients, the majority of people have mild to moderate pet allergies that can be easily managed by some simple housekeeping, pet grooming, and personal health measures that can keep your pet a close companion.
What Are You Reacting To?
I’d like to explain to you a little about your reaction to certain pets. Cats and dogs are the most likely pet for you to be allergic to, with cats topping the list. Bird allergies are not as common in humans, but those that have them may also be allergic to eggs. So, I’ll focus here on cats and dogs and the particular allergens they carry.
Cats and dogs shed dander, or dead skin, similar to how humans shed dandruff. This dander contains harmless proteins which are the allergens that sensitive people react to. This dander gets sticky from fluids your pet secretes and hangs onto their fur. When your pet sheds, this sticky dander collects throughout your home on everything including you. These proteins are also in your pet’s saliva and urine. So when your dog says hello with one of his face licking kisses, or you clean out your cat’s litter box, you’re exposed to these proteins.
Your reactions to pet dander can range from mild to severe depending on how sensitive you are. Mild or minor reactions may be slow to show up and might include sneezing or a light rash.
Moderate reactions are more likely to appear more quickly, and can include:
- Swelling, itching, redness, of the moist membranes of the eyes and nose
- Inflammation, or redness, burning/tearing of the eyes
- Nasal stuffiness, post nasal drip
A severe reaction to pet dander might include the following:
- Intense rash on the face, neck and chest
- Coughing, and/or closing throat sensation
- Asthma attack – characterized by wheezing, difficulty breathing, especially with cat sensitivity.
Diagnosing a Pet Allergy
If you find yourself reacting to your pet with any of the above symptoms, especially the severe ones, it would be a good idea to see a doctor in the specialty of Allergy and Immunology. These doctors specialize in the treatment of allergies. Diagnosis of a pet allergy is determined by:
- Medical history – asks about yourself, your pet, your reaction.
- A blood test panel where a RAST (radioallergosorbent test) is used to evaluate the degree of allergens in your blood.
Keep in mind that it may be necessary to remove your pet from your home for a while and then reintroduce it. You need to be sure that your symptoms are coming from your pet and not some other trigger like dust or mold in your home, or outdoor pollens.
What Can You Do?
If you are severely allergic to pet dander so that contact causes you to have an asthma attack, you will need to stay away from pets with fur or feathers. Pets like a snake, fish, or turtle would be a better choice for you.
If you are only mildly to moderately sensitive to pet dander, here are some things you can do to help you live more comfortably with your pet:
- Keep a clean pet. Brush/comb them every day to minimize shedding. Wipe them down every week with a special solution soaked “pet wipe” towel found in pet stores that removes about 90% of their dander. Give your dog or cat a regular bath at least once a month, maybe twice a month, depending on your level of sensitivity. Dogs usually like tub baths and some even like to come in the shower along with you. Cat baths may take a few times before they really get used to it. A kitchen sink with a hose sprayer attachment makes it easier for you to handle them. Letting them rest their front paws up on the counter with their back legs in the sink gives them a sense of security. Use specially formulated shampoo for cat or dog. Or, take them to a groomer.
- Keep a clean home. You will need to spend a little more time cleaning your house. Invest in pet hair removal brushes to keep fur from accumulating on furniture. Clean litter boxes of waste every day. Use a clumping litter that is 98% dust free. Once a month empty it completely and wash it down with hot water and bleach. Keep the floor around the litter box free of litter and wash floor around it frequently with a bleach solution. Keep your pets in their own beds to minimize your reactions to them. A machine washable cover on their beds helps cut down dander spread. If your cat or dog gets up on your bed, launder your blankets frequently. Install a HEPA filter air cleaner on your furnace and air conditioner and run for several hours a day. Its better to not have carpet with pets and/or allergies, but if you must, clean them regularly with steam. Launder throw rugs frequently.
- Fortify Yourself. Some people may need prescription anti-allergy medicine or shots to help tame their symptoms. Taking adequate levels of Vitamin C, Vitamin D3 can help minimize allergic reactions by boosting your immune system. Antioxidants like Vitamin E and A have been helpful in reducing allergic reactions. Proteolytic enzymes, like bromelain, are supplements that break down proteins in food and can help to further breakdown the proteins in pet dander allergens. Agents like quercetin, a bioflavonoid, blocks histamine response (but should not be taken by pregnant women). NAET (Nambutripad’s allergy elimination technique), is a fairly new alternative approach to eliminating allergies developed by an acupuncturist, Dr. Devi Nambutripad, and involves either acupuncture or acupressure.
Having a pet allergy may cause you to rethink your relationship with certain pets and whether you can, or want to, share your life and living space with them. However, if you do decide you can have a pet in your life, you will need to put a little extra time into the care and keeping of your pet and yourself. But, that extra effort will pay off with health benefits of one of the most enjoyable, mutually beneficial, relationships you can engage in between you and your loving pet.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.