Pets can be good for us, providing affection, entertainment and reduction in stress. Sadly however, pets are one of the major causes of allergies in the home. Around 10% of the population suffer an allergic reaction after contact with pets. The risk is particularly high in children who have already been diagnosed with asthma, of whom around 50 % are allergic to cats and 40% allergic to dogs.
Pet allergy occurs where the immune system reacts to proteins produced by pets as if they are a harmful invader. These proteins are found in the dander (dead flakes of skin), urine, sweat or saliva produced by the animal, any of which can cause a reaction. Any animal with fur, such as cats, dogs, horses, rabbits, mice, hamsters and gerbils can trigger an allergic response, as well as some birds. Even if you don’t have a pet, there is likely to be some level of allergy-inducing pet dander in your home, brought in on the clothes and shoes of those who have been in contact with animals.
Pet Allergy Symptoms
Symptoms may occur within minutes of contact with the allergen and may include any of the following:
- A runny or blocked nose
- Itchy, red, watery eyes, inflammation or swelling around the eyes, discoloured skin under the eyes
- Asthma, a condition where the individual may experience tightening of the chest, wheezing, coughing and difficulty breathing
- Hives or a rash appearing on the face or chest or on any area of skin where you have been bitten, licked or scratched by the animal
- A child or infant with pet allergy may rub their nose or eyes excessively after contact with the pet.
Where the individual displays symptoms of asthma, specific asthma medication such as inhalers should be given. If symptoms appear severe, hospital admission may be necessary.
Your symptoms may be very mild, and controllable with over-the counter medication, but where symptoms are frequent or severe you should speak to your doctor who may arrange tests or refer you to an allergy specialist for further investigation.
The allergist will probably ask about whether you or your close relatives suffer from any allergies such as eczema or asthma as these can increase the likelihood of a pet allergy. The lining of your nose may be examined, to see if it is swollen or discoloured. Your doctor might decide to perform blood tests or a skin-prick test, where your skin is exposed to allergens to observe the reaction. These tests are not necessarily conclusive and your allergist may suggest that you try living without your pet for a few months to see if your symptoms improve.
Treatment of the symptoms
Antihistamines are obtainable, in tablet or nasal spray form, both over-the counter and by prescription. They reduce the severity of a reaction. Some people also find it helpful to take these as a preventative measure before entering a home with cats or dogs.
Decongestants can help with the blocked nose which some people experience after contact with pet allergens. However, if you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure or with a heart condition you should consult your doctor before taking decongestants.
Corticosteroids can also help. These sometimes come in the form of a nasal spray, or may sometimes be prescribed to be taken orally.
If the above treatments prove ineffective, doctors may try a course of immunotherapy. This treatment can last for several months or even years. The patient is exposed to tiny doses of the allergen which are gradually increased. However, immunotherapy is not suitable for everyone.
Where an individual who has been exposed to pets suffers a severe asthma attack, asthma medication should be given immediately and if the patient appears to have difficulty breathing or the symptoms are otherwise severe, an ambulance should be called and immediate medical attention sought.
Management of Pet Allergies
Unfortunately for animal lovers who are allergic to pets, the best way to manage the condition is to avoid cats, dogs and any other animals which may bring on an allergic reaction. Where symptoms affect the person’s quality of life the heart-breaking decision to re-home the family pet may be the only solution.
However, there are measures which can be taken to make a home with a pet safer for those with pet allergies. Ensure that there are pet-free areas in the house, particularly the bedroom of the allergy sufferer. Whereas it is relatively easy to prevent a dog from going upstairs, cats may be harder to control. Keep the bedroom door firmly shut. Make the home as easy as possible to clean. Wherever possible carpets should be replaced with wooden, plastic or stone flooring from which animal dander and hairs can be more easily removed. Any carpets, rugs, cushion-covers and curtains should be washed or steam-cleaned regularly. Leather sofas are less likely to harbour dander than ones upholstered in fabric, and should be wiped down regularly. Animal litters and cages should be cleaned out daily. Buy pet blankets and bedding which can be washed at a high temperature and wash these every few days. It may be helpful to buy a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter, and such filters can also be attached to some air-conditioning and central heating systems.
The pet should be groomed regularly by someone other than the allergy sufferer. Some studies have shown that washing dogs and even (where possible!) cats frequently can sometimes help prevent or reduce the severity of allergic reactions.
The hypoallergenic pet?
Some breeds, such as labradoodle dogs and hairless sphinx cats can be more allergy-friendly than some other breeds. However, there is no such thing as a truly hypoallergenic breed of pet. All breeds of cats and dogs are capable of producing the proteins which may trigger allergies in some sufferers. If you buy a pet from a breeder you should insist on a trial-period of several days or preferably weeks, after which you can return the animal if any member of your family suffers a reaction.
Might early exposure to pets reduce allergies later in life?
Some studies have found that exposing a baby to dogs during the first 12 months of life can reduce the likelihood of pet and other allergies later in life. However, the safest advice for those with a family history of allergies is probably to avoid having pets altogether.