Are You Allergic to Your Pet? Symptoms, Treatment, and Hypoallergenic Pets

Various environmental triggers can lead to allergies in people, ranging from pollen and dust to dust mites and mold. Sadly, this can even include being allergic to our pets. Pet allergies involve animal proteins and the body’s abnormal reaction to them. Some people suffer allergies to multiple types of animals, while others only react to one. Due to the joy and benefits pets bring, many people enjoy their companionship despite allergies.

If you own a pet or are exposed to animal allergens at work or elsewhere, medical management and good hygiene practices can help you enjoy the human-animal bond while maintaining a healthy quality of life.

What causes pet allergies?

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Pet allergies occur when you come in contact with an allergen, something foreign your body overreacts to. The immune system does this to protect you from viruses, bacteria, and other invaders. However, in the case of allergies, the reaction fails to be protective, causing symptoms instead.

People are commonly allergic to cats and dogs. However, rabbits, horses, and rodents — typically guinea pigs — also trigger allergies. Sometimes, however, the animal itself isn’t the problem; the environment or food they consume, such as hays, straw, litter and bedding products, related dusty products, and other environmental components, is the trigger.

Contrary to popular belief, pet allergies result from animal protein carried in the pet’s dander, saliva, or shed in secretions. The allergy isn’t directly to the fur itself. One can be exposed to various animal-induced allergens through inhalation, direct contact (touch), or via the eyes or nose.

What is dander?

Dander is dead skin, hair, or feathers that are naturally shed from an animal. Allergens can be carried in the pet's dander and on the fur. Exposure to pet allergens can occur through contact with the pet’s urine, skin, poop, or saliva. When shed, these allergens are very small and weigh little, allowing them to remain in the air for some time. This also makes it easier for them to lay to rest on anything in the home, from bedding to furniture to carpets or one’s clothing and hair.

Often, dander is considered the reason for pet allergies. However, this is an oversimplification of human allergies to pets. Dander is only one means of exposure to pet proteins. Some animals are more likely to have higher levels of dander, especially those with underlying skin allergies or certain underlying medical problems.

Who gets allergies?

Allergies are common globally, with estimates of 30% or more of the population having general allergies. Pet allergies commonly occur in the allergic population. However, many people fail to recognize that their symptoms stem from their favorite companions since they are similar to seasonal allergies.

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Those with a personal or family history of asthma may have an increased risk of developing allergies. However, anyone can develop allergies, which may not manifest the first, second, or third time one comes in contact with a pet. It may take repeated exposures before allergies become apparent.

Symptoms of pet allergies

Pet allergy symptoms can range from mild to severe but often mimic seasonal allergies. For those with asthma or other underlying respiratory diseases, symptoms can be more significant and result in flare-ups and even difficulty breathing. Symptoms occur from exposure to a pet, the pet’s environment, or the fabric or clothing exposed to a pet. The pet doesn’t have to be in the immediate vicinity to trigger a reaction.

Common symptoms include:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Itchiness of the nose, face, hands or feet, roof of mouth, or throat
  • Sinus pressure/congestion
  • Watery/itchy eyes
  • Itchy skin, dry skin, or redness
  • Coughing
  • Throat irritation
  • Facial pain or pressure

In more severe instances, we may see:

  • Skin rash or hives
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing (whistling sound)
  • Anaphylaxis (life-threatening situation with trouble breathing, throat closure, tongue swelling, or other signs that require immediate medical attention)

Symptoms may come and go or may be continuous, depending on exposure. For people who have ongoing exposure, symptoms do not go away. This is one of the reasons people may not realize that pets are the cause of their signs. Often, people with allergies to pets also have environmental allergies, complicating matters.

Diagnosing pet allergies

If you experience allergy symptoms, especially after getting a new pet, discuss them with your healthcare provider. Ideally, a medical practitioner specializing in allergies, such as an allergist or ENT (eye, nose, and throat specialist), is best served to help you with your diagnosis and potential management strategies.

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The gold standard for allergy diagnosis is intradermal skin testing. Skin testing involves placing a (very small) dilute amount of the allergen in a liquid form under the top layer of the skin with a needle. This is then compared to a control, generally saline. The provider waits approximately 15 minutes to see if any redness, swelling, itchiness, or irritation occurs.

If any of these reactions occur, they are measured and compared to the control. If positive, this suggests that the allergy is present; otherwise, the test is negative. However, not all patients can have skin testing for various reasons, and blood testing or allergen challenge tests may be another option.

Treating, managing, and preventing pet allergies

Currently, there is no cure for allergies. Thus, allergies are managed by treating the symptoms and avoiding exposure when possible. Unfortunately, while the best treatment is to avoid the triggers, this isn’t always feasible for animal lovers, pet owners, and those with work-related exposure. Additionally, since our environment can have animal allergens, complete avoidance may never be possible.

Ways to decrease allergy symptoms

If you have a pet at home and need to manage clinical signs, some things can lessen your exposure.

  • Avoid kissing, hugging, or letting the pet around your face.
  • Wash hands after pet handling.
  • Do not allow pets in your bedroom or on your bed.
  • Cover pillows and mattresses with hypoallergenic covers.
  • Remove carpeting, vacuum frequently (weekly), get it cleaned professionally, or replace it often.
  • Dust with a damp cloth every couple of days.
  • Avoid soiled litter.
  • Use an asthma/allergy-certified air purifier (with HEPA filters) in key rooms of the home.
  • If the allergy sufferer must vacuum, dust, and change the litterbox, wearing a face mask may lessen allergen exposure.
  • Do not let the pets on the furniture.
  • Change air filters in heating/air conditioning units regularly.
  • Have another family member clean and change out the litterboxes, provide hay, and do any husbandry-related activities, such as brushing the pet to lessen their exposure.
  • For dogs, bathing them once monthly to once weekly may help lessen allergen shedding. Talk to your veterinarian about safe products for your pet.
  • When cleaning bedding and clothing, if permitted by the fabric, use warm temperatures as this may improve allergen reduction; if your washer has an allergen setting, this may further improve removal.

Unfortunately, if symptoms are severe, it may be necessary to consider rehoming the pet. However, completely removing the allergens and dander from the home will still take several months. Consider changing the filters in your heating/air conditioning unit once a pet has been rehomed to aid in the removal process. Further, removing any carpeting will also help shorten the time the allergens remain.

Medications to manage allergic symptoms

Your healthcare provider may prescribe medications to reduce or control your symptoms, such as:

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  • Antihistamines, oral. These medications block the histamines released by the body when exposed to an allergen. This may decrease symptoms that develop. Be aware that some antihistamines can cause drowsiness (among other side effects). Examples of this class of medicine include loratadine, cetirizine, and fexofenadine, which are available over the counter (OTC) or by prescription.
  • Antihistamine nasal sprays. These work similarly to orals but at a more local level in the nasal passageways. Examples include olopatadine (Patanase®) or azelastine (Astepro®).
  • Corticosteroid nasal sprays. These reduce swelling in the nasal passages and decrease inflammation. Available OTC or prescription, e.g., fluticasone and Nasacort® (triamcinolone acetonide).
  • Eye drops. These may be antihistamines, steroids, or related products and may be OTC or prescription. Examples include ketotifen fumarate (Zaditor®) or alcaftadine (Lastacraft®).
  • Oral corticosteroids. If airways are constricted, those with asthma and more severe allergic symptoms may require systemic (prescription) steroids to reduce inflammation in the lower airways, skin, and other locations to help treat the initial stages of allergic symptoms. Examples include prednisone, triamcinolone, dexamethasone, or methylprednisolone (Medrol® dose pack).
  • Your doctor or allergist may recommend long-term allergy injections. They are used when other drugs fail to treat symptoms or when responses are severe or worsening despite medical management. After allergy testing, injections are created to slowly adapt the body to the allergens and instruct the immune system not to react negatively. It can take months or years to realize their benefits.
  • For asthma sufferers, additional medications such as rescue inhalers may be necessary, especially in acute flares (albuterol or epinephrine).
  • Bronchodilators. These medications open the airways and may also be necessary, especially for those with underlying asthma (inhaled or oral options).

If a person with allergies develops significant wheezing, trouble breathing, tongue, mouth, or face swelling, difficulty talking, or other severe presentation, seek emergency medical care immediately.

Preventing allergy onset

Often, we do not know we have an allergy to an animal until we are exposed, and maybe not even the first few times we come in contact with that pet. So, preventing the onset of symptoms is challenging. However, research suggests that children who have early exposure to pets may be less likely to develop pet allergies as they get older. Further, research indicates that children exposed to animals (dogs, cats, and others) before one year of age have a lower risk of developing animal allergies than those without exposure, thus having a protective effect.

Hypoallergenic pets: a myth

Despite breeder attempts to advertise a pet as hypoallergenic, regardless of the length of a pet’s fur, type of fur, or lack of fur, a true hypoallergenic pet doesn’t exist. This holds true for any species. Research shows that any breed of dog or cat demonstrates allergen production upon testing. That being said, animals that are thought to shed less, our so-called hypoallergenic dog breeds, may cause fewer symptoms in some allergy sufferers, but there are no guarantees.

Effect of pet allergies on mental health

Though additional robust research is needed to confirm the specific health benefits that pets impart on our lives further, we know that there are undeniable benefits in heart and mental health. Pets can provide emotional support, help motivate us, and even aid in socialization with others. Further, recent research suggests that exposure to cats or dogs early in life lessens the risk of depression once one reaches adolescence.

Keeping a pet, despite one’s allergies, may be a trade-off. Managing your allergies to your pets seems like a small price to pay for the unconditional love of a furry friend. People who must give pets away due to a family member’s severe allergies should remain mindful of the human-animal bond and take steps to allow the individual to express any sadness and feelings of loss.

Don’t give up your pet, manage allergies

Generally, you don’t need to give up your pet if you suffer from animal allergies. One can still enjoy their pets by maintaining a clean home, using air purifiers approved by the Allergy and Asthma organizations as beneficial for allergen reduction, and managing clinical signs. The human-animal bond has many benefits and improves quality of life, even in the face of allergies.

If you are diagnosed with pet allergies, this doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy the love of your furry friend. It means you must be diligent, avoid excess exposure, maintain a clean environment, and ensure your pet remains healthy. Further, seek medical care to obtain recommendations for managing your symptoms. Finally, consider getting a pet before or when your kids are very young. This may have protective effects, lessening their risk of allergies as they age.

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