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Guide for Pet Parents Who Think They May be Allergic to Dogs or Cats

A family pet should bring a smile to your face, but not a tickle to your throat. Every year, pet parents are forced to re-home a beloved pet because they discover that someone in the family suffers from pet-related allergies. You can determine if you are allergic to a dog or cat before bringing them home and there are steps you can take to minimize reactions to a current family pet–even if you have allergies.

While people can experience allergic reactions to pet hair or fur, it's usually the proteins found in a pet's dander (which are dead skin flakes), saliva and urine (depending on the breed) that can trigger an allergic reaction or aggravate asthma symptoms. The allergy triggering proteins cling to pet fur and dander, which in turn sticks to walls and furniture and finds its way into your carpet, bedding and clothing. Also, pet hair can collect pollen, mold spores and other outdoor allergens that can cause you to have an allergic reaction.

People with allergies to pet dander, saliva or urine can suffer from itchy or swollen eyes, puffy faces, congested sinuses, a runny nose, red or irritated skin, itching or coughing. For people with asthma, contact with a dog or cat can trigger an asthma attack. Some reactions are immediate, while others may not happen until several hours after contact with an allergen. Some reactions are cumulative, and it can take weeks for the allergen level in your home to increase enough to affect a susceptible family member.

Get a Diagnosis

Contrary to popular opinion, there are no hypoallergenic breeds of dogs or cats. Even hairless breeds can cause an allergic reaction. The pet hair itself is not an allergen, however, allergy-causing dander often sticks to fur and, for pets that shed a lot, it is more readily released into the surrounding environment.

One option for determining if anyone in your family is allergic to dogs or cats is to visit a shelter or rescue that allows interaction with the animals. While it isn't a proper diagnosis, it can give you an idea ahead of time whether or not there are concerns.

The best way to determine if you have an allergy to pets is to go to your doctor or to an allergist for a diagnosis. Many allergy sufferers are sensitive to more than one allergen, so you may not want to blame your family pet just yet. You can work with an allergist on a treatment plan to reduce the overall allergen level in your environment by concentrating on all of the allergens, not just the pet allergy.

Reduce Allergens

If an allergy test shows that you are allergic to your pet, it is important to understand what causes your reaction to them. If your reaction isn't life-threatening, there are many ways to reduce indoor allergens and allergy symptoms so you and your pet can live together more comfortably.

Create an Allergy Free Zone

  • Strictly prohibit the pet's access to the allergic person's bedroom.
  • Use a high-efficiency HEPA air cleaner in the allergic person's bedroom.
  • Use impermeable covers for the allergic person's mattress and pillows.
  • Use HEPA air cleaners throughout the rest of the home.
  • Avoid using furnishings such as cloth curtains and carpet, which collect dust and dander.
  • Clean and vacuum frequently and thoroughly to remove dust and dander.
  • Frequently wash couch covers, pillows, curtains and pet beds.
  • Do not allow your pet to jump on furniture.
  • Provide your pet with a comfy bed or two to call her own, and wash them frequently.
  • Do not let the allergic person hug, kiss or cuddle the pet.

Keep Your Pet Clean

Bathe your pet to reduce the level of allergy causing dander. Consult with your veterinarian on the frequency of baths appropriate for your pet. Cats can get used to being bathed, but it's critical to only use products labeled for them; kittens need a shampoo formulated just for them. Bathing your dog regularly using a dog shampoo can decrease the severity of your allergy symptoms, but it usually doesn't eliminate them. Brush your pet regularly, outside if possible. You can also consult with your veterinarian about other ways to help minimize allergens from your pet.

The Difficult Decision

If you have made all efforts to live with your pet despite an allergy, and you have decided that you must re-home your dog or cat, your first option should be to try and find a new home yourself by reaching out to family and friends. Or, work with a rescue group that specializes in re-homing pets or a no-kill shelter that will offer your pet a safe haven until she finds a new home.