How Pets and Allergies Can Go Hand in Paw

Can allergic people and pets live side by side?

Your new girlfriend enters your apartment, glances around, then achoo! Your husband has spent three years glaring at Fluffy-Pie, but you won't give her up. What do you do?

Causes of Pet Allergies

Eleven million people are allergic to cats alone. About 15% of us are allergic to animals.

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People who love pets and don't have allergies should not become complacent. "You can develop an allergy at any time," Derek K. Johnson, MD, director of allergy and immunology at Temple University Children's Medical Center, tells ishonest. "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."

The animal's saliva on the fur from cleaning itself or on your skin from slobbery kisses can also incite a reaction. Pet urine can also be a culprit.

"To be exact," Pamela A. Georgeson, MD, a board-certified allergist at the Kenwood Allergy and Asthma Center in Chesterfield Township, Mich., tells ishonest, "a lot of people are allergic to a cat protein called FEL-d1 found in dander and saliva."

Allergies are more commonly caused by cats, says 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 Pet Allergy

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People, especially kids, may not even know they are allergic. The proteins cause the body to produce histamines, which result in sudden eye itches, wheezy breathing, or a rash.

Children can be declared to be prone to colds and not allergic. Children can also be diagnosed as asthmatic, and pets can exacerbate asthma.

Allergies can be hereditary. If you had asthmatic bronchitis a lot as a child, you may develop a cat allergy later in life. "No one is born with an allergy," Johnson points out, "they develop in some people from exposure."

Interestingly, according to Johnson, there is "very compelling information" that children exposed to animals before their immune systems are fully formed at age 2 are unlikely to become allergic.

Of course, such symptoms can result from other causes. Ask your doctor about a test for pet allergies.

Coping With Pets in the Home

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"We have a three-pronged approach," says Georgeson. "First is avoidance. "You need to limit the areas of the home where the animal is allowed, primarily the bedroom and the bed. Don't forget how much time we spend breathing and touching things in that room."

"Shut the bedroom door," Johnson says.

Other tips:

  • Buy a HEPA filter. All three physicians recommended this. HEPA filters can be portable or home-wide.
  • Remove dander-trapping carpets. "Install tile or wood that can be cleaned thoroughly," Georgeson advises. (Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter, too.)
  • Wash bedding frequently in hot water (dust mites, which do not come from animals, are also powerful allergens). Washing flushes away dander that has settled on the bedding.
  • In some cases, consider closing off house-wide ducts to the bedroom and using portable heating and cooling.
  • Do not allow the pet in the car or use washable seat covers.
  • Wash your hands after playing with the animal.
  • Clean and vacuum regularly.

Managing Your Pet

All the doctors recommended bathing pets frequently, which in the case of cats can be very entertaining. "Even a damp washcloth on the fur can help," Mitchell says (towelettes are also available at pet stores for this purpose).

Keeping the animal's skin healthy with vitamin supplements can limit shedding of dander.

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"I have had people saying they would shave their pet," Georgeson says. "That might be helpful, but you will still get dander."

Counter to what you might think, the amount of dander an allergic person breathes does not make the symptoms worse or better. "Dose has no relevance," Johnson says. "Small animal, big animal, long fur, short fur, it doesn't make a difference."

So much for the new designer dogs, such as labradoodles, although some people swear they cut symptoms. One prominent vet has also advanced the theory that female animals cause fewer allergies. This is open to debate.

Last Resorts

"Our second approach," Georgeson says, "is to medicate the patient with topical or inhaled corticosteroids, especially if he or she is asthmatic."

The third? "If all this fails, then there are shots," Georgeson says. Often these must be given every week.

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Mitchell, therefore, is enthusiastic about liquid drops absorbed in the mouth that are being developed in Europe, although they are not approved for use here. He says he is confident these will soon be on the scene. "They are pretty exciting," he says.

"There is not a lot of peer-reviewed literature on the drops," Georgeson observes. "The shots can change an allergic person to a nonallergic person."

"Shots," Johnson says, "are the mainstay."

1 Doctor's Story

"I am a cat and dog owner," Georgeson says. "I practice what I preach -- the wood floors, the cleaning.

"My husband and I are not allergic, but many of our family members are, and when they come here they have no symptoms. This stuff works."

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