Asthma & Allergy Advocate
Leashing Animal Allergies
from the Winter 1996 issue of the ADVOCATE

If you are like many people, you may find out that you have animal allergies too late ó after you bring an adorable puppy or a fluffy kitten into your home. Cat or dog allergy occurs in approximately 15% of the population. For those with asthma, the percentage jumps to 20-30%. In general, cats cause more severe allergic reactions than dogs.

An allergy is an immune reaction to an allergen protein found in saliva, dander (dead skin flakes) or urine, although many people mistakenly believe they are allergic to the hair of an animal. Allergens get carried in the air on very small, invisible particles, which then land on the lining of the eyes (conjunctiva) and nose. Inhaling the particles directly into the lungs also causes allergic symptoms. If the allergic personís skin has contact with the allergen, the person may experience itching and hives. Usually symptoms will occur quickly, within minutes of exposure to an animal. For some people, the symptoms may build up over several hours and be most severe 12 hours after they had contact with the animal.

So, what do you do when you find your furry friend causes you to sneeze, wheeze and itch?

The best treatment is to completely remove the animal from the home and avoid any contact. Keeping the animal outdoors is only a partial solution, since studies have shown that homes with pets kept in the yard have higher concentrations of animal allergens than homes without pets.

What are the best pets for a person who is allergic to animals? Animals without fur ó turtles, hermit crabs, fish, and snakes ó are the pets of choice for people with allergies. Although people with animal allergies are strongly discouraged from keeping a furry pet, many insist on doing so. If this is the case, there is no particular cat or dog breed that is better than any other. However, exposure to animal allergens can be minimized by following these steps:

  1. Keep the pet out of the bedroom. Because so many hours each day are spent in the bedroom sleeping, just keeping the pet out of this room will reduce exposure dramatically. Remember that any visit by an animal leaves allergens behind, so the pet must stay out of the bedroom completely. Also, people with animal allergies should try to keep the pet out of any other rooms that they spend a great deal of time in.

  2. Keep the pet outside the home, if possible. This works well if your pet is a dog or rabbit, since a dog house or rabbit hutch will allow your pet to spend time outdoors comfortably and safely. (Make sure pets have proper shelter.)

  3. Bathe the animal weekly to reduce the amount of allergens released into the environment. You should consult with your veterinarian for advice regarding care of your animalís skin to prevent excessive dryness if you are washing your pet regularly.

  4. Have a non-allergic family member brush your pet outside. This will help remove loose hair and allergens from your pet and will reduce the amount that is shed indoors.

  5. Ask a non-allergic family member to clean the animalís litter box or cage. While it is thought that dander and saliva are the source of cat allergens, urine is the source of allergens in other pets, such as rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs.

  6. Cover upholstery. Allergens accumulate in areas such as carpeting, mattresses, cushions, and even on vertical and other horizontal surfaces of a room. Since the allergen particles can go through fabrics, mattresses and cushions should be encased in plastic with a zipper to prevent the release of allergens when squeezed.

  7. Reduce carpeting coverage. Vacuuming does not improve allergies because it does not clean the lower levels of the rug, and in fact, stirs up small allergen particles. Some of these particles can move right through the vacuum, but a vacuum filter may help prevent this release. Periodic steam cleaning of wall-to-wall carpeting may be somewhat beneficial. The best solution is to have a hardwood floor with scatter rugs that can be taken up and washed.

  8. Replace bedding and carpeting that has animal dander in it. It can take months for fabrics to come clean of allergens. Animal allergens may persist for a year or more after the animal has been removed. Again, keep animals out of the bedroom, and use new bedding and rugs.

  9. Ask about immunotherapy. Studies have shown that this therapy will improve, but not completely prevent symptoms. Cat and dog allergen immunotherapy works best in cases where the patient has only occasional, unavoidable exposure, rather than in cases where the animal stays in the home all of the time. Immunotherapy can have severe side effects, so this treatment is not usually considered until environmental control measures and medications have already been tried. Ask your allergist about immunotherapy for animal allergies.

  10. Avoid living in a super-insulated home. Studies show that energy-saving homes (those built with triple-glazed windows, with all cracks carefully sealed) keep allergens as well as heat in. One study found an allergen level 200% higher in a super-insulated home than in an ordinary home.

  11. Try home air cleaners, which are designed to reduce airborne allergens in the indoor environment. They may help to eliminate some of the pet dander and other allergens in your home. Ask your allergist about using an air cleaner.

  12. Choose a medication. Your allergist can help you choose a medication that will best control your allergy. Medications can be taken to prevent symptoms if you are only exposed occasionally. These medications may include antihistamines, decongestants and asthma medications (for the allergic asthmatic).

For more information, see our Tips brochure on Animal Allergies.

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