Jan 23 2009

Suffering from pet allergies? You’re not alone

With Barney the Scottish Terrier back on the ranch in Texas, pet lovers across the nation are looking forward to seeing what kind of dog will be taking his place in Washington.

Malia and Sasha have been promised a puppy, and we can’t wait to see the girls playing with their new dog on the White House lawn! We applaud the first family’s plan to adopt a dog from a shelter. We also are also pleased to see them taking plenty of time to choose just the right dog for their family.

Since Malia has pet allergies, the Obamas have narrowed the field to either a Portuguese Water Dog or a Labradoodle – both are breeds that don’t shed much and tend to be good choices for reducing allergic reactions.

What causes pet allergies?
Glands in the animal’s skin secrete tiny allergy-triggering proteins, called allergens, that linger in the animal’s fur but also float easily in the air. Allergens are present in saliva and urine, too, and may become airborne when saliva dries on the fur.

The severity of reaction to these allergens varies from one person to the next, ranging from mild sniffling and sneezing to life-threatening asthma. Reactions can be complicated by simultaneous allergies to other irritants in the environment. About 15% of the population is allergic to dogs or cats.

What about non-allergenic breeds?
Contrary to popular belief, there are no “non-allergenic” or “hypo-allergenic” breeds of dogs or cats. Even hairless breeds may be highly allergenic. Cats tend to be more allergenic than dogs for allergic people, although some people are more sensitive to dogs than cats.

Dogs with soft, constantly growing hair – the Poodle or the Bichon Frise, for example – may be less irritating to some individuals, although this may be because they are bathed and groomed more frequently. One dog or cat of a particular breed may be more irritating to an individual allergy sufferer than another animal of that same breed.

Living with pet allergies

If your allergies are not life threatening, there are steps you can take to reduce allergy symptoms and make it possible to live with a pet.

Here are some tips from the Humane Society of the United States for dealing with pet allergies:

  • Create an “allergy free” zone in the home—preferably the bedroom—and strictly prohibit the pet’s access to it.
  • Use a high-efficiency HEPA air cleaner in the bedroom.
  • Consider using impermeable covers for the mattress and pillows, where allergen particles can accumulate.
  • Use HEPA air cleaners throughout the rest of the home, and avoid dust-and-dander-catching furnishings such as cloth curtains and carpeted floors.
  • Clean frequently and thoroughly to remove dust and dander, washing articles such as couch covers and pillows, curtains, and pet beds.
  • Use a “microfilter” bag in the vacuum cleaner to effectively catch all the allergens.
  • Bathe your pet once a week (this can reduce the level of allergens on fur by as much as 84%).

Working with an allergist to control symptoms
If you are coping with pet allergies, is important to find an allergist who understands your commitment to living with your pet.

First, don’t be quick to blame the family pet for allergies. Ask your allergist to specifically test for allergies to pet dander. If tests confirm that you are allergic to pet dander, allergy shots (immunotherapy) can improve symptoms. The shots work by gradually desensitizing a person’s immune system to the pet allergens.

Additional treatments for symptoms include steroidal and antihistamine nose sprays and antihistamine pills. For asthma, there are multiple medications, sprays, and inhalers available.

A combination of approaches – good housecleaning methods, immunotherapy, and medical control of symptoms – is most likely to succeed in allowing an allergic person to live with pets.

This information adapted from the HSUS fact sheet Allergies to Pets.

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