Category: Allergens  

Living with Pet Allergies

May 16, 2006

Personal Health

Learning to Live With Your Pet (and Breathe, Too)


My friend Gail is allergic to cats. Yet she is devoted to the two adorable Siamese
that share her home, and she chooses to tolerate her chronic sinus congestion
and cough rather than give them up. She is not alone. Fully 75 percent of people
advised by allergists to give up their pets refuse.

Can Gail and her allergic compatriots learn to live more healthfully with their

Yes, says Shirlee Kalstone, author of "Allergic to Pets? The Breakthrough
Guide to Living With the Animals You Love" (Bantam Dell, $7.99). The potential
audience for her message is large indeed. There are more than 150 million pet
owners in the United States alone, and 1 in 10 of them is allergic to the animals
they love.

Ms. Kalstone insists that "forgoing pet ownership or giving up a pet should
be the last step an allergic person must take, not the first."

And while not everyone will be willing to adopt Ms. Kalstone’s many suggestions,
there are clearly steps that can help most pet-allergic people learn to live
more comfortably with their cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, gerbils, hamsters, horses
or what-have-you. Still, not everyone will find sufficient relief from allergic

If you don’t want to be bothered, consider this: the only "safe"
pets for the allergic are fish, frogs, toads, turtles, lizards, snakes and most
insects — fun, perhaps, but not exactly cuddly.

Sources of Misery

Every animal that has hair, fur or feathers is capable of causing allergic
reactions in people sensitive to their allergens — proteins in saliva,
urine, secretions from oil glands in the skin, and dander, the tiny dead skin
particles these animals constantly shed.

These allergens can be dispersed directly into the air or carried on the hair,
fur or feathers the animals shed. Pet allergens can then be deposited on clothing,
furniture, bedding, rugs, shoes, curtains, window blinds and even walls. And
they can be carried throughout a home via heating and air-conditioning ducts.
Even after a pet is gone and the house has been thoroughly cleaned, allergens
can remain imbedded in carpeting and furniture.

Allergies can develop over time with repeated exposures, so even if a person
did not react when the pet first came into the house, there’s no telling what
may happen later. Scientists at Johns Hopkins have found that exposure to pets
increases the risk of asthmalike symptoms in older children.

On the other hand, sometimes repeated low-grade contact with pet allergens
results, happily, in desensitization, just as can happen after years of allergy
shots. There is no such thing as a dog or cat that does not cause allergies,
although some breeds stir up more problems than others. All dogs and cats shed,
but those with double coats — like springer spaniels, collies, German shepherds
and Samoyeds — shed more than others.

Among breeds deemed less allergenic are poodles, bichons frisés, Maltese
and Portuguese water dogs, which have soft, silky or curly single coats (no
undercoats). Light-colored cats tend to be less allergenic than those with dark
coats, Ms. Kalstone reports. Yet even a hairless sphynx cat can cause symptoms.
And there are individual differences within breeds: a Mayo Clinic study found
that some cats shed 100 times as much allergen as others of the same breed.

Some birds, too, cause more problems than others, especially the "powder
down" ones — cockatiels, cockatoos, African grays and pigeons —
that produce large amounts of white powdery dust every day.

The most important step in minimizing pet allergies is containment. Keep the
pet out of the bedroom and, if at all possible, off the furniture people use.
Get the dog or cat its own couch or floor cushion with a washable cover. Keep
birds, rabbits and other rodents in their cages. Never let the pet sleep with
the allergic person.

If possible, confine the animal to just a few rooms without carpets, rugs or
upholstered furniture. In the car, crate the pet or keep it on a washable cover
with a nonporous underside.

The second most important step is frequent cleaning — of your pet, its
quarters and your home — preferably by someone who is not allergic. A dog
or cat should be washed every week, or at least cleaned with a pet allergy relief
solution like Allerpet or AllerFree. Birds, too, enjoy a bath. Haven’t you ever
watched one splashing about in a puddle or pond? Even large birds will enjoy
a light shower with a mist sprayer that can dampen allergens.

Cleaning the Quarters

Pet cages should be cleaned weekly as well, and cat litter boxes emptied daily
and the litter changed weekly. If you have no helper free of allergies, consider
getting a self-cleaning litter box. Pet cushions and blankets should be washed
weekly in hot water and tumble-dried.When handling your pet, place a towel on
your lap and wear washable clothing that is cleaned separately from other laundry.
If the pet licks you, wash your skin with soap and water as soon as possible.

Next, keep your home clean, not only to remove pet allergens but also other
substances that commonly cause allergies, like dust mites, mold and pollen.
Clean weekly, and if you do it, wear a dust mask over your mouth and nose.

Trapping the Allergens

Use damp or electrostatic dust cloths, a damp mop, and a vacuum with a HEPA
filter or vacuum bags that trap small allergens. If possible, have someone else
change the vacuum bag. Install a HEPA air purifier in your bedroom (and, consider
getting others for rooms the pet inhabits). Remove carpets and use only washable
throw rugs where the animal lives.

Avoid fabric wall coverings, heavy drapes and window blinds with slats that
can trap dust and airborne pet allergens. Use washable curtains and roll-up
window shades. If you have a cat, wipe down the walls or vacuum them periodically
to remove the sticky airborne allergens that cats produce.

Use filters on air vents to keep from spreading allergens throughout the home.
Reduce exposure to all manner of allergens, not just those from your pet. That
includes dust mites and pollen, as well as irritants like tobacco smoke, perfume
and scented soaps and lotions, air fresheners, aerosol sprays, household chemicals,
pesticides and paint fumes.

Most important is controlling allergen exposures in the bedroom of an allergic
person. Use only hypoallergenic (that is, nonfeather) pillows and comforters;
encase mattresses and pillows in mite-proof covers; change bedding weekly and
wash it in hot water; and dust regularly on, under and behind the bed, behind
dressers and nightstands and along baseboards.

Ceiling fans are notorious collectors of dust that can be spread throughout
the room the moment they are turned on. The top of the blades should be cleaned

Keep the bedroom clear of dust collectors, especially stuffed toys.

If all else fails and the pet is considered an indispensable family member,
there are two possible treatment approaches: daily dosing with antihistamines
or a series of desensitization injections to minimize a person’s reactivity.
Effective shots have been developed for cat allergies.