So, You're Allergic To Your Pet. Now What?

Photo: Preappy

It may come as a surprise, but some of the most common allergies we have are those to our own beloved pets. Many of us just deal with symptoms like watery eyes, sneezing, and hives, but if allergies start to get severe, they can affect our sleep and quality of life. And in the case of a more severe pet allergy, asthma and more serious problems can result, and they shouldn’t be ignored!

So what do you need to know about pet allergies? Well first, it’s important to note that if you have other allergies such as pollen or dust sensitivities, the likelihood of being allergic to a pet is much greater. Therefore, before deciding to adopt or bring home a furry or feathered friend, it’s important to foster an animal for a while to make sure it’s a good fit.

Most of the time when we are allergic to cats or dogs, we are allergic not so much to their fur but to proteins in their skin cells (dander), saliva, and urine. Since cats are always grooming themselves, their saliva is deposited on their fur, and it makes them very allergenic. They also do a lot of climbing on furniture and rubbing up against walls, so their hair and dander tend to stick to surfaces, making it very difficult to keep under control. Similarly, dogs carry allergenic proteins in their dander and saliva that can be just as problematic. Generally however, dogs are easier to control in terms of their behavior and are also easier to groom and bathe.

Is there a hypoallergenic dog or cat? Unfortunately, this is a common misconception. Every person responds differently to each breed, so you may bring home a supposedly hypoallergenic breed of cat or dog only to find that you still have reactions to them. That being said, some breeds do have lower levels of allergenic proteins in their saliva and may shed less dander and fur, therefore releasing less into your house.

So what do you do if you find yourself sniffling, sneezing, and coughing around Fluffy or Rover but can’t bear to part with them? Here's where to start:

1. Become a cleaning maven.

Giving your place a good vacuuming several times a week with a HEPA filter vacuum really helps. (Make sure to get the upholstery as well!) Use a Swiffer-type mop to get baseboards and walls and wipe down counters and surfaces frequently with an electrostatic cloth, especially if you have a cat. If you have the luxury of a basement or spare room, keep the litter pails there. Since cats have allergens in their urine, and for obvious other reasons, you want to keep the litter boxes far away from your daily living spaces. Make sure when changing them that you wear a particulate dust mask and protective goggles so the dust doesn’t give you a reaction.

2. Have an animal-free zone.

Many people love to sleep with their dogs and cats, but this is a recipe for disaster if you're allergic. Keep your bedroom a pet-free zone; in fact, it’s a good idea to run a HEPA air cleaner in your bedroom while you sleep to keep the air free of dander and hair. If you live in a loft or studio and don’t have the luxury of doing this, still try to give your furry friend a bed to sleep on other than your own, and while you're gone, cover your bed with a sheet to protect it in case they decide to take a nap.

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3. Minimize other potential allergens.

Since it's common for people to be allergic to animals as well as pollen and dust mites, controlling for other allergens can decrease the body’s total allergy burden and minimize symptoms. For dust mites, stick with hypoallergenic bedding instead of feathers or down. Wash your sheets weekly in hot water and cover both your box spring and mattress with a certified dust-mite-proof cover.

4. Give 'em a bath.

Dogs should receive a bath every few weeks to remove allergens from their fur and cut down on shedding. Although it may seem unrealistic to bathe your cat, you may want to get them professionally groomed if they have long hair or a thick undercoat to reduce shedding as well. Brushing them outdoors with a de-shedding tool like the Furminator can also be helpful.

5. Try safe medications.

The bulk of allergic reactions are caused by the release of histamine from our cells. This is what causes the itching, sneezing, and hives. Natural herbs such as stinging nettle as well as quercetin have natural antihistamine properties, and I also recommend daily rinsing the nasal passages with saline spray or a Neti pot. This may be enough to help ease symptoms, and if not, there are other synthetic antihistamines on the market, but they may cause sedation and dryness—along with other side effects.

It's worth mentioning that subcutaneous allergy immunotherapy (SCIT) or allergy shots can also be really helpful in retraining your immune system to tolerate certain allergens. Available through your local allergist's office, they are often covered by insurance and are quite effective. The downside is that initially you have to go in for weekly shots and they take months to take effect. The upside is that after a series of two to three years, their effects can last for a long time.

Taking over-the-counter allergy meds? Here's a list of natural remedies that will make you want to ditch that antihistamine.

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