Are Your Furry Friends Causing Your Allergy & Asthma Symptoms?
Allergies to pets with fur or feathers are common, especially among people who have other allergies or asthma. People with dog allergies may be allergic to all dogs or to only some breeds. Cat allergies are about twice as common as dog allergies.
People with pet allergies have supersensitive immune systems that react to harmless proteins, called allergens, in the pet’s dander (dead skin that is shed), saliva, or urine. Dogs and cats secrete fluids and shed dander that contain the allergens. They collect on fur and other surfaces. The allergens will not lose their strength for a long time, sometimes for several months. They appear to be sticky and adhere to walls, clothing, and other surfaces.
Pet hair is not an allergen. It can collect dander, though. It also harbors other allergens like dust and pollen.
Cat and dog allergens are everywhere. Pet dander is even in homes never occupied by these animals because it is carried on people’s clothing. The allergens get in the air with petting, grooming, or stirring the air where the allergens have settled. Once airborne, the particles can stay suspended in the air for long periods of time.
Reactions to cat and dog allergens that land on the membranes that line eyes and nose include swelling and itching of the membranes, stuffy nose, and inflamed eyes. A pet scratch or lick can cause the skin area to become red. If allergen levels are low or sensitivity is minor, symptoms may not appear until after several days of contact with the pet.
Cat and dog allergens are everywhere, even in homes never occupied by these animals.
Many airborne particles are small enough to get into the lungs. When inhaled, the allergens combine with antibodies. This can cause severe breathing problems – coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath – in highly sensitive people within 15 to 30 minutes. Sometimes, highly sensitive people also get an intense rash on the face, neck, and upper chest.
For about 20 percent to 30 percent of people with asthma, cat contact can trigger a severe asthma attack. Cat allergies also can lead to chronic asthma.
If a pet allergy is suspected, your doctor may diagnose it by taking a medical history and testing your blood. Some people are so attached to their pets that they will deny the pets could cause their symptoms. In these cases, the person is removed from the animal’s environment to see if symptoms go away. It does not help to remove the dog or cat. Allergens still in the area can cause symptoms months after the animal is gone.
To diagnose cat-induced asthma, a person must have asthma symptoms when exposed to a cat or cat allergen, as well as an allergic reaction to a skin test or to a blood test. To make sure the diagnosis is correct, your doctor will watch what happens when a cat is added then removed from your environment several times.
The best treatment is to avoid contact with cats or dogs and their dander. Keep the pets out of the house, and avoid visiting people with pets. Avoiding cats and dogs may give you enough relief that you will not need medication.
Keeping the pet outdoors will help but will not rid the house of pet allergens. Another option is to have pets that do not have fur or feathers. Fish, snakes, and turtles are some choices.
What if I Want to Keep My Pet?
To test the effect of household pets on your quality of life, remove them from your home for at least two months and clean thoroughly every week. After two months, if you still want pets, bring a pet into the house. Measure the change in your symptoms; then decide if the change in your symptoms is worth keeping the pet.
If you decide to keep a pet, bar it from the bedroom. Keep the bedroom door closed, and clean the bedroom aggressively. Washing the pet every week may reduce airborne allergens but is of questionable value in reducing a person’s symptoms.
Because animal allergens are sticky, you must remove the animal’s favorite furniture, remove wall-to-wall carpet, and scrub the walls and woodwork. Keep surfaces throughout the home clean and uncluttered. Bare floors and walls are best.
Wear a dust mask to vacuum. Vacuum cleaners stir up allergens that have settled on carpet, making allergies worse. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter if possible.
Forced-air heating and air conditioning can spread allergens through the house. Cover bedroom vents with dense filtering material like cheesecloth. Adding an air cleaner with a HEPA filter to central heating and air conditioning can help remove pet allergens from the air.
Source: Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, www.aafa.org
This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, Spring/Summer 2011.