How To Tell If You’re Allergic To Your Pet

Did you know that almost 33% of people in the US with allergies have allergic reactions to cats and dogs? And that twice as many people are allergic to cats as to dogs? These figures represent a sizeable problem for people with cat or dog allergies because almost 62% of American households have pets, and more than 161 million of those are cats and dogs. Unfortunately, this means that millions of pet owners are allergic to their animals.

How can you be allergic to your pet?

James A. Pollowitz, MD, FAAAAI, FACAAI

The job of the human immune system is to identify foreign substances, such as viruses and bacteria, and fight them. Normally, this response works very well, protecting us from dangerous diseases. People with pet allergies, however, have over-sensitive immune systems that overreact to harmless proteins in a pet’s urine, saliva or dander (dead skin cells), says the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA).

Pet hair or fur can collect allergy triggers such as pollen, mold spores and other outdoor allergens (a normally harmless substance that causes the immune system to overreact in people with allergies) that when brought inside, can set off an allergic reaction or asthma attack.

In addition, pet allergens can collect on furniture, walls, clothing and other surfaces and remain at high levels for several months. These allergens can be released into the air when an animal is petted or groomed, and then re-released into the air during dusting, vacuuming or other household activities. Once airborne, these easily-inhaled particles can stay suspended in the air for long periods.

Is there such a thing as a hypoallergenic pet?

No. It’s a common assumption that certain breeds of dogs are “hypoallergenic,” but a truly non-allergic dog or cat does not exist. The American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) states that “allergic dander in cats and dogs is not affected by length of hair or fur, nor by the amount of shedding.”

Symptoms of a pet allergy

Pet-related allergic reactions include:

  • itchy, puffy eyes (especially after petting an animal then touching your eyes)
  • stuffy nose
  • red skin from a pet scratch or lick
  • coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath
  • rash on the face, neck and upper chest
  • severe asthma episode (asthma attack) in 3-10 people with asthma
  • chronic asthma

Best treatment for a pet allergy

The most effective treatment, says the AAFA, is to avoid contact with cats or dogs or the areas where they live.

  • This means keeping pets out of your home.
  • If possible, try to avoid visiting homes with pets you are allergic to.
  • Keeping your pet outdoors will help, but will not rid your house of pet allergens that trigger your allergy symptoms.
  • Choose pets that do not have fur or feathers, such fish, snakes or turtles

What if you want to keep your pet?

Removing the pet from the home is often the best way to prevent allergy symptoms. However, this isn’t always necessary. A specially-trained allergist/immunologist can usually develop a personalized treatment plan to help you manage your allergy symptoms and allow you to keep your pet.

If you don’t want to get rid of your pet, try these suggestions from the AAFA:

  • Remove your pet from your bedroom where you spend one-third of your time. Keep the bedroom door closed and clean the room often, possibly with a HEPA air cleaner.
  • Because animal allergens stick to fabrics and surfaces, remove furniture that your pet tends to sleep/lie on and any wall-to-wall carpet (bare floors are best). Scrub walls and woodwork.
  • If you really want carpet, select one with a low pile and steam clean it frequently. Better yet: use throw rugs and wash them in hot water regularly.
  • Wear a dust mask to vacuum. Vacuum cleaners stir up allergens that have settled on carpet and make people’s allergies worse. Use a vacuum with a certified asthma and allergy friendly filter if possible.
  • Change and thoroughly wash your clothes after prolonged exposure with an animal.
  • Forced-air heating and air-conditioning can spread allergens throughout your house. For this reason, cover bedroom vents with dense filtering material such as cheesecloth.
  • Run an air purifier with a certified asthma and allergy friendly filter at least 4 hours per day.
  • Wash your pet every week to reduce airborne allergens.
  • Have someone without a pet allergy brush your pet outside to remove dander, as well as clean the litter box if you have a cat.
  • Talk to your allergist about medicines or immunotherapy that could help you manage your allergy.

Read our blogs on the subject

We’ve written several informative blogs about asthma and allergies which you can read here.

Helpful websites

Want some help with your pet allergy? Come see us.

If you have a pet allergy and would like advice and guidance on how to better manage it, please call us at (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment to see one of our Westchester Health Allergy and Immunology specialists. We’ll examine you, possibly perform some tests and together with you, determine what would be the best steps to take to control your allergy and hopefully, enjoy your pet. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

By James A. Pollowitz, MD, FAAAAI, FACAAI, an allergy, asthma and immunology specialist and pediatric physician with Westchester Health, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners

by Blog