The trend in the humanization of pets is growing. We have now started to see our dogs and cats as other family member. Although they bring joy, companionship, and unconditional love, they can also lead to a flurry of sneezes, itchy eyes, and other uncomfortable symptoms. Not for everyone though.
For those affected, these reactions are often due to pet allergies.
Let’s take a look at why pet allergies occur and discuss some practical advice on managing and reducing the symptoms.
We’ll also mention how we can test whether you are allergic to pets.
Understanding Pet Allergies
At its core, an allergy is the body’s overreaction to a normally harmless substance. When someone is allergic to a pet, their immune system mistakenly identifies certain proteins found in the pet’s dander, saliva, or urine as a threat.
In response, the body releases chemicals, one of which is called histamine. This release of histamine triggers a downward cascade of reactions, which ultimately leads to the allergy symptoms we experience.
These can include red and itchy eyes, itchy skin, wheals, runny nose, and so on.
Common Allergens in Pets
- Pet Dander: Dander is tiny, even microscopic, flecks of skin shed by cats, dogs, rodents, birds, and other animals. Cat dander allergy is one of the most common ones. These small particles of skin can become airborne and, when inhaled by someone with an allergy, can trigger reactions.
- Saliva, Urine, and Sweat: It’s not just the dander that can cause issues. A pet’s saliva, urine, and even sweat can contain proteins that cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. For example, when a cat licks its fur, it’s spreading allergens all over its body. These allergens subsequently get released in the air, and you guessed it, you can end up inhaling it.
- Differences in Allergens: While cats and dogs are the most common culprits, it’s worth noting that some individuals can be allergic to birds, rodents, or other animals. Each species, and sometimes even individual breeds, can produce different allergens.
Symptoms of Pet Allergies
The symptoms can vary widely from one individual to another, but some common signs include:
- Sneezing and runny or blocked nose
- Itchy or watery and red eyes
- Skin rashes or hives
- Asthma symptoms, such as wheezing or difficulty breathing, especially in those with pre-existing asthma. These latter symptoms can be the most worrying as they can lead to a medical emergency if not treated.
Why Do Some People Have Pet Allergies While Others Don’t?
This is a question that intrigues many. There are fewer worse things than being a huge animal lover and not being able to snuggle with a furry friend without repercussions. Some factors that contribute to developing an allergy to pets include:
- Genetic Predisposition: Allergies often run in families. If both your parents have allergies, you’re more likely to develop them too. Atopy is what can be passed down through generations. This refers to a predisposition in your immune system to developing an allergy later on in life.
- Environmental Factors: Early exposure to pets might reduce the risk of developing allergies later in life.
- The Hygiene Hypothesis: Some researchers believe that living in very clean environments can increase the risk of allergies. The theory suggests that exposure to germs and certain infections during childhood can strengthen the immune system and reduce the risk of allergies.
The final point might just be the reason why the number of allergies has increased so much in the last decade. Being more careful and avoiding germs in early childhood could have consequences such as these later on in life.
Managing and Reducing Allergy Symptoms
Living with pet allergies doesn’t mean you have to give your pet away.
You could first try taking some precautions and making adjustments to your environment, so you can both co-exist without inconveniencing one another.
Create an Allergen-Free Zone
- Allergen-Free Rooms: It’s beneficial to designate certain rooms, especially bedrooms, as pet-free areas. This means that you can at least find relief from symptoms when you are resting in bed or sleeping.
- Maintain a Clean Space: Frequent cleaning can help reduce allergens. Consider vacuuming at least once a week. When you do clean, ensure your vacuum has a HEPA filter. This is recommended so it can trap the tiny allergenic particles. Additionally, air purifiers may help reduce airborne dander.
Pet Grooming and Care
- Regular Baths: Bathing your pets once a week can significantly reduce the amount of allergens they release into the environment. This is because you are getting rid of the dander or dead skin before it can be released into the enviornment.
- Hypoallergenic Wipes: For pets that might not tolerate frequent baths, you could try using hypoallergenic pet wipes. These may remove some of the allergens from the fur and are especially handy after outdoor walks (especially if you are also allergic to pollen, as pollen can cling on to their fur).
Medications and Treatments
Antihistamines, like cetirizine or loratadine, can help reduce sneezing, itching, and other allergy symptoms. Decongestants can help with a stuffy nose. However, it’s crucial to consult with a healthcare provider before starting any medication.
For those with severe symptoms, a doctor might prescribe stronger antihistamines or corticosteroids.
The latter may be necessary if your allergy symptoms are too severe and not controlled well enough with antihistamines.
Try some Lifestyle Changes
- Handling Pets: After playing with or handling pets, always wash your hands. If possible, change clothes to reduce the spread of allergens around the home.
- Allergen-resistant Bedding: Use allergen-proof covers on mattresses and pillows to reduce exposure during sleep.
Hypoallergenic Pets: Myth or Reality?
While some breeds are touted as “hypoallergenic,” the truth is more nuanced. No pet is completely allergen-free, but some dogs and cats produce fewer allergens than others.
Breeds like the Poodle, Bichon Frise, and Siberian cat are often recommended for allergy sufferers. This mostly comes to the fact that they shed less.
However, individual reactions can vary. You could get some feedback from friends or colleagues who may also have pet allergies and have managed to cohabitate with a pet.
Living with pet allergies can be a challenge, but with understanding and proactive management, they don’t have to stand in the way of enjoying the companionship of animals. By recognizing triggers, making necessary lifestyle adjustments, and seeking medical advice when needed, you could still lead a fulfilled life alongside your beloved pets.
Dr Elena Salagean is a consultant allergist who offers allergy testing, management and treatment options in the UK. She has been quoted by numerous journalists in the UK and USA and is also a researcher and published author on Pubmed.