It has been reported that over one-half of all households in Canada include a cat or a dog. Compare that with a 15-30 % prevalence of pet allergies in allergic individuals. It stands to reason, therefore, that there are likely some people living in the same house as a pet they are allergic to.
Though it is widely believed that pet allergies are reactions to a pet’s hair—allergies being more common to animals with furs such as dogs, cats, and rodents—this is a misconception. The most common allergen responsible for producing symptoms of allergic rhinitis (such as sneezing, a runny nose, and itchy watery eyes), as well as symptoms of asthma, is pet dander. Pet dander refers to particles of skin sloughed off from the animal and is shed from even hairless dogs and cats. Therefore, no pet is 100% hypoallergenic. Some animals may shed less than others, but the allergen would still be found throughout areas the animal roams. In addition, proteins found in the saliva and urine of pets can also be allergenic.
With allergic symptoms significantly affecting an individual’s quality of life, undoubtedly those with allergies would prefer to live in a house free of allergen. Indeed, the primary course of allergy management is allergen avoidance. Most allergy specialists would agree that choosing to find your pet new home is in the best interest of those with allergies. But what do you do if you can’t bear to give Fluffy or Fido away?
Minimizing exposure to pet allergens can be achieved within a house, by limiting a pet’s access to certain rooms. Keeping animals out of rooms you spend a lot of time in, especially the bedroom, can reduce allergen levels in these rooms. Keeping an animal outdoors as much as possible may also help to improve symptoms, however, pet allergen will likely still eventually enter the house on clothing and shoes.
Inside the house, controlling pet allergen is similar to managing a dust mite allergy. This is particularly true during winter months when houses are kept closed, and you and your pet are inside more. Cleaning carpets and floors often will help reduce exposure—hard flooring such as wood, tile, or linoleum may be preferable. Even if Fluffy is well trained to stay off the furniture, covering upholstered furniture and washing the covers in hot water regularly can also minimize allergen levels. This is true as well for seats in a car if a pet rides in it. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology also endorses the use of HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) air purifiers and filters to trap dander.
Even if all of the measures above are taken, an allergic individual still may not be able to live comfortably in a house with a pet. This is where allergen immunotherapy, a.k.a. “allergy shots” may come in. An allergist is the best person to speak to about individualized allergy treatment, and may recommend allergy immunotherapy as a course of long-term symptom management. By injecting your body with small doses of the allergen, the process aims to desensitize your immune cells and prevent reactions when you are exposed to the natural allergen. Immunotherapy is the only long lasting form of treatment for allergies, and research is ongoing in order to develop new and effective treatments based on this concept.
If you are considering adding a pet to the family, you might first consult with an allergist to test for animal allergies – this may save you the tough choice of choosing between Fluffy and allergy symptom management. If you already know you are an “allergic person”, living with a pet on a trial basis may be a good first step to test your tolerability. Treatment via allergen immunotherapy is also possible prior to bringing home a new pet and is worth discussing with your allergist. All in all, making an informed decision when managing pet allergies is recommended.
Perrin, Terri. (2009) The Business of Urban Animals Survey: The facts and statistics on companion animals in Canada. The Canadian Veterinary Journal. 50(1), 48-52.
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, Pet Allergy, http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/allergies/pet-allergy.aspx.
Kingston General Hospital, Queen’s University Allergy and Immunology Clinic, “Allergy to Animals and Birds” handout and “When You Are Allergic to Cats” handouts available at http://drellis.ca/animals.pdf and http://drellis.ca/cat-allergy.pdf