Understanding and Treating Pet Allergies
by SEAN JARVIS
For thousands of people who love animals and their pet companions, there also comes a distracting side effect — pet allergies. Fortunately, there are several ways to manage your allergies and reduce your symptoms.
Why Do I have Allergies, and What Causes Them?
While it is not believed that specific allergies are inherited, there is a strong genetic correlation to contracting allergies. Through this genetic predisposition and when coupled with a set of risk factors, your chances of becoming sensitized to a particular allergen are heightened. As a result, allergies can happen to anyone at any age.
Most people who suffer from pet allergies also have allergic reactions to other allergens, such as pollens and mold.
During an allergic reaction, your body’s immune system senses foreign substances (pet dander, saliva, urine, etc.) and sends a chemical signal to your mast cells to release histamine. When histamine leaves the cell, it increases blood flow, which causes inflammation. This lets other chemicals know it is time to react, triggering an allergic reaction. Now, you are sniffling, sneezing, coughing, and wiping your runny eyes!
The Severity of Allergic Reactions
For most people with pet allergies, exposure to pet dander, saliva, and urine will trigger a mild reaction. (Interestingly, pet hair is not considered an allergen itself, but it easily collects dander, urine, and saliva, which are allergens.)
The severity of allergic response in people with pet allergies varies, and according to Dr. Weyman Price of Watson Clinic in Lakeland. “Some people will have very minimal symptoms when exposed to a pet while others may even experience a severe asthma attack.”
So just how severe can pet allergies get?
“Pet allergies are generally not deadly, but they can sometimes trigger anaphylactic shock, which is life-threatening, although this is VERY rare,” Price explains.
“For some, this exposure can cause severe breathing problems. Highly sensitive people can begin coughing, wheezing, and have shortness of breath within five to 30 minutes of inhaling allergens. Sometimes highly sensitive people also get an intense rash or hives on the face, neck, and upper chest.”
This is why it’s crucial to be aware of your surroundings, especially if you know you have allergies. The most common type of pet allergy is to cat dander.
“Because cat dander is finer and lighter than a dog’s,” Price says, “it tends to impact a greater number of people. An estimated 10 percent of Americans are allergic to household pets; with cat allergies nearly twice as common as dog allergies.” This is why no matter how much you clean, scrub, and vacuum, you may still find yourself experiencing mild allergic reactions.
Minimizing Your Immune Response
The best chance at easing your allergies would be to avoid spending time around the animals you react to. However, if this is not possible, taking specific steps to limit your exposure would help cut down on allergy flareups.
- Since we spend one-third of our time in our bedrooms, keeping pets out will significantly reduce allergy symptoms and help you sleep better.
- Using air purifiers with HEPA filters will keep dust, dander, and pet hair to a minimum in rooms where your pets spend most of their time.
- Regularly cleaning and vacuuming your home, especially with vacuums that meet the HEPA standard, will keep allergens from getting kicked up into the air.
- Regularly bathing your pets or taking them to a groomer also can be helpful to keep hair and dander levels low.
- Brushing your pets daily and making sure to wash your hands after handling your pet (as well as their toys, dishes, and bedding) can go a long way.
If you still have allergy symptoms despite your best efforts, it may be time to turn to medicine. Using nasal sprays, antihistamines, and bronchodilators will help relieve your discomfort. But, according to Price, one of the best ways to overcome pet allergies is allergen Immunotherapy.
“A.I.T. (or allergy shots) remains the most effective way for most people with pet allergies to eventually overcome them IF they plan to have continued exposures,” Price says. “Medications such as antihistamines, intranasal steroids, and allergy immunotherapy – as prescribed by a board-certified allergist” also are recommended.
While some pet breeds are marketed as “hypoallergenic,” no pet is entirely non-allergenic. “Hypoallergenic” pets produce fewer allergens than others and may shed less, but their dander, saliva, urine, and sweat can still cause an allergic reaction. While hair itself is not the problem, an animal that sheds less will keep dander and other pet allergens to a minimum.
The value that pets bring to our lives cannot be understated. For many people, their pets are considered integral members of the family, and managing pet allergies is a price they are willing to pay for that loving companionship. By taking steps to reduce your contact with allergens and manage reactions and flareups, allergic pet owners can continue living a happy and harmonious life with their furry companions.