Pets and Allergies
While adding a family pet can bring a lot of good experiences to a family, it can also bring allergies. An estimated 10 percent of the population may be allergic to animals, and about 25 percent of individuals with asthma have pet allergies, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI).
While as many as 70 percent of U.S. households have a dog or cat, according to ACAAI, families should consider the potential for allergies before choosing a pet.
"Last June, my family of five decided to get a dog," says Susan Held, a mom from Cooksville, Md. "We decided to adopt a shelter dog. The application/interview process to adopt a pet is rigorous. Many of the questions the shelters and rescues ask prospective families have to do with whether you have children, whether you babysit or have child visitors frequently and whether any of these children have pet allergies."
Held notes that she was told that allergies, especially among children, are one of the top reasons cited when pets are relinquished to shelters. "Allergies are an important topic that should be considered before the pet joins the family, not after an allergy develops," she says. "Pet stores and many breeders do not ask about the possibilities of allergies, and many good intentioned families do not think of it until it's too late, and their adorable puppy or kitten ends up at animal control."
After much research and meeting adoptable dogs, the Held family found a dog. "Tara is some sort of mixed breed, maybe a Lab and a Plott hound, and we love her to pieces," she says.
Family pets provide many benefits, such as companionship, security and a sense of comfort. However, people with allergies should be cautious in deciding what type of pet they can safely bring into their home.
The most common household pets are dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, rabbits, mice, gerbils, rats and guinea pigs. Larger animals such as horses, goats, cows, chickens, ducks and geese, even though kept outdoors, can also cause allergy problems as pets. Dander, or skin flakes, and their saliva and urine from pets can cause an allergic reaction. Both feathers and the droppings from birds can increase the allergen exposure, according to ACAAI. Droppings from caged animals, such as birds, gerbils, hamsters and mice, can be a source of bacteria, dust, fungi and mold.
After the Fact
"Most people discover their animal allergies after they acquire a new pet ... after the emotional bond to the animal has been made," says Dr. Andy Spooner, associate professor and director, Division of General Pediatrics, Department of Pediatrics, University of Tennessee College of Medicine, Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center, in Memphis.
"Animal dander – basically skin cells that flake from the pet's skin – is a very common allergen that all animals shed. Despite urban legends to the contrary, there is no breed or dog or cat that is allergen-free, or even less allergenic than any other dog or cat."
Cats are a little more allergenic than dogs, and male cats are more allergenic than female or neutered male cats, but all pets with skin – birds included – are potentially bad news for allergy sufferers, according to Dr. Spooner.
He notes that skin testing at an allergist's office can diagnose animal dander allergies, but most parents diagnose animal dander allergies merely by watching their child when he or she goes over to a friend's or a relative's house where dogs or cats are present. Itchy eyes, itchy skin, coughing and wheezing are the telltale signs. "If a child has severe asthma, eczema, allergic rhinitis or allergic conjunctivitis, it's probably a good idea to avoid pets in the home regardless of skin test results," Dr. Spooner says.
If a pet comes into the home and it becomes obvious that the child is allergic, the best thing to do is to get rid of the pet, says Dr. Spooner, who acknowledges that this is easier said than done. "One could banish the pet to the outdoors, but what would be the point of that?" he says. "The child would still not be able to have contact with the animal. It's a very hard situation. You can get allergy shots to desensitize you to pet dander but many allergists reserve this involved – and expensive therapy – for people like veterinarians whose livelihood depends on exposure to dander."
Dr. Derek Johnson, assistant professor of pediatrics and director of the Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at Temple University Children's Medical Center in Philadelphia, agrees that while it is a difficult dilemma, the best thing may be to remove household pets.
Despite common myths, washing the pet does not prevent the dander or skin from causing allergies. It can take up to six months to a year for the cat allergen levels to start to decrease after a cat has been removed. Therefore, it is crucial to keep the pet out of the allergic child's bedroom, Dr. Johnson says.
If the pet remains in the house despite a child's allergies steps can be taken to separate the child and pet. "Door closers help ensure the bedroom door stays closed at all times so the pet can't get in to sleep on the bed," Dr. Johnson says.
Over-the-counter medicines can be used to help with allergies on a regular or as needed basis to combat pet allergies. For occasional visits, say to a grandparent's house where there is a cat or dog, over-the-counter antihistamine medications, such as Benedryl or Claritin, are often helpful.
Janice Young, a mom from Marlton, N.J., says that she owns two cats and while no one in the family has ever been allergic, a good friend is. "Our friend has to visit during the nice weather (and we dine on the patio), or he takes prescription medication before he leaves home," she says.
"Over-the counter antihistamines such as Benedryl can make a child or adult sleepy," Dr. Johnson says. "Other newer generation antihistamines, like Claritin and Alavert, do not cause sedation." He notes that the most effective medical allergy treatments are prescription intranasal steroids or prescription nose sprays. Allergy shots are also available and are effective but may take several years of therapy.
The Humane Society notes that pet owners are quick to relinquish their animals when they don't think they have alternatives. According to the Society, for people who have non-life-threatening allergies and also own a pet a combination of approaches – control of symptoms using medicine, good house-cleaning methods and immunotherapy (allergy shots) – is most likely to succeed in allowing an allergic person to live with pets.