Living with Allergies: Pets at Home

Pet by Christopher Woo
Pet by Christopher Woo

Almost every parent knows the situation: your child comes home excited and won't stop repeating stories about Benny or a similar name. It takes you a couple minutes to realize that Benny is not a new kid at school, but her friend's new dog. And if your kid's incessant pleading for a pet has finally won you over — or worn you out — it's time to start thinking practically. But what do you do if somebody in your family suffers from a pet allergy?

This inconvenience can be a reasonable obstacle to buying any pets. However, the benefits of having a pet at home usually outweigh the drawbacks of pet allergies for many people. Although allergists claim the best remedy is to remove the pet from the home, you might be surprised by the number of people who have learnt to live with their pets in harmony even if they have pet allergies.

It's estimated that approximately 30 per cent of people are allergic to dogs or cats. If you do not belong to this group, you shouldn't rule it out just yet. "You can develop an allergy at any time," explains Derek K. Johnson, MD, director of allergy and immunology at Temple University Children's Medical Center. "That's why it's important to know what causes pet allergies. It's the flakes from the animal's skin, called dander, not the fur. So even if it's a bald cat, you can be allergic."

Another source of allergens can be found in the animal's saliva on the fur or on your skin after you cuddle with your pet. Of course, pet urine as well as other body substances can also be a culprit.

Most of allergies are caused by cats, claims Dean C. Mitchell, MD, a board-certified allergist in practice in New York. "I have had people come to me from all walks of life," he continues. "Some people can't even go to Thanksgiving at a house with a pet. I see veterinarians with allergies, pet groomers."

Symptoms of a Pet Allergy

Symptoms by M Car
Symptoms by M Car

It's not so easy to know you are pet allergic. The allergic proteins produce histamines in your body and they result in sudden eye itches, wheezy breathing, or a rash. Such symptoms are tricky, especially in children, who are often prone to colds or diagnosed asthmatic.

"No one is born with an allergy," Johnson emphasizes an important fact, "they just develop in some people from exposure." Yet it is true that allergies can be hereditary. According to Johnson, children exposed to animals before their immune systems are fully formed at age 2 are unlikely to become allergic.

German scientists who studied children in rural areas of German-speaking countries support the very same conclusion in the New England Journal of Medicine. Similarly, an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that regular contact with two or more dogs or cats in the first twelve months of life may reduce the risk of future allergic sensitization to various types of allergens. Interestingly, according to these studies, pets can help to prevent the development of allergies.

Coping With Pets in the Home

Cat in box by Kerry Vaughan
Cat in box by Kerry

There are many ways to reduce allergy symptoms if they make you totally miserable. Avoiding exposure to pet dander is essential. Even though it might not eliminate symptoms, inconvenience should be lowered to some degree.

Contrary to popular belief, there are no "non-allergenic" breeds of pets. Even hairless breeds can cause symptoms. As already mentioned, the main cause of allergic reactions is not the fur but the flakes of animal skin. Dogs with soft, growing hair (like the poodle or the bichon frise) might be less irritating, although this is highly individual. The severity of allergies varies across different breeds, but scientists have not been able to draw any general conclusions so far.

Maybe you are curious about so-called hypoallergenic pets, claimed to be special allergen-free pets. The majority of specialists consider this phenomenon a myth. Renowned Dr. Greenwald says: "I think people are fooling themselves," adding that "it is true that so-called hypoallergenic dogs perhaps shed a little bit less, but we've clearly seen allergies to these dogs as well."

Whether you think these special breeds are efficient in preventing allergic reactions or not, these are effective methods to prevent or decrease allergic reactions to pets:

  • Set up an "allergy-free" zone in the home. Limit the areas where the animal is allowed, preferably the bedroom and the bathroom.
  • Wash your pet often. Bathe her at least once a week. The level of allergens can be significantly decreased by as much as 84 per cent!
  • Clean your place thoroughly. Remove dust and dander frequently. Use a vacuum with an allergen-trapping filter.
  • Wash your hands after playing with your animal.
  • Buy a HEPA air cleaner. HEPA filters (available at almost any specialized store) help you in fighting allergens.
  • Check humidity. Maintain indoor humidity at 40 per cent or less. If necessary, use a (de)humidifier.
  • Get impermeable covers for the mattress and pillows. Covers such as zippered, plastic casings prevent accumulating allergen particles in mattresses and pillows.
  • Avoid dust-and-dander-catching furnishing. Replace cloth upholstery, cloth curtains and blinds, and carpeted floors with alternative coverings.
  • Try immunotherapy or other medical therapies. Allergy shots can improve the symptoms by gradually desensitizing your immune system to the pet allergens. Consult your allergist. New, more effective, and safer medications for allergies are developed each year.
Rabbit by Audrey
Rabbit by Audrey

Also, don't be quick to blame the family darling for allergies if you notice some symptoms. Speak to your allergist and get tested for allergies to pet dander before making an assumption. Allergies are cumulative, and many sufferers are actually sensitive to more than one allergen. Eliminating the exposure to dust, pollen, and cigarette smoke might reduce reactions as well, and then you don't need to look for a new home for your pet.

I remember my friend mentioning how her doctor got angry when she mentioned her three cats at the preventive check-up. It's true that pets living at your place can be a potential danger for your health, but the advantages are also worth mentioning. Many health benefits that come from being the owner of pet were recorded, such as lowering high blood pressure, combating depression, and preventing heart disease and diabetes. Maybe you've heard about therapy dogs.

Pets — whether a dog, cat, bird, hamster, reptile or fish — help children develop a sense of responsibility and discipline and prepare them for difficult life situations, too. Last but not least, the charming moments spent with your pet are absolutely priceless. As my friend says, "A house is not a home without a pet."

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