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What Are Pet Allergies?
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Pet allergies are allergic reactions to certain proteins found on fur-bearing animals like cats and dogs. It's a common misconception that people with pet allergies are allergic to fur; instead, they're allergic to proteins found in pet dander (dead skin cells), urine, and saliva.1 While dander is in fur, it's not the fur itself that causes the reaction.
Pet allergies are more common than you might think, affecting 10 to 20% of people.1 Of course, even some pet parents have pet allergies. Unfortunately, most people with pet allergies should avoid exposure to prevent uncomfortable symptoms like sneezing, runny nose, and itchy eyes. However, medications and other treatments can help manage symptoms if you're a pet parent allergic to your furry friend.
- 10 Pet Allergy Symptoms
- What Causes Animal Allergies?
- When Should You See a Doctor?
- How to Prevent Pet Allergy Flare-Ups
- Final Notes
10 Pet Allergy Symptoms
Some people are unsure whether they have pet allergies, especially if they didn't grow up around pets. That said, common signs of a furred animal allergy include the following:
- Runny nose
- Itchy eyes
- Itchy skin
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest tightness
- Worsened asthma2
Not everyone with animal allergies experiences all symptoms, and the severity of symptoms varies from person to person. For example, some people can visit pet households with very few symptoms, while others experience more serious reactions like difficulty breathing. However, if you experience any of these symptoms for longer than 2 weeks, it’s a good idea to see a doctor to get tested for pet allergies.
What Causes Animal Allergies?
Allergens from cats are in dead skin cells (dander), which they shed in fur, saliva, and urine.2 Since dander is small, sticky, and lingers in the air and on clothing and furniture for extended periods, it is particularly difficult to get rid of.
Allergy symptoms occur when the immune system reacts to an irritant it perceives as a threat. Some people are allergic to dust and experience the same symptoms as those with pet allergies. The immune system produces antibodies to protect itself from these allergens and overreacts. Ultimately, the immune system believes dander and other allergens are dangerous and produce an inflammatory response in the form of symptoms to fight them off.2
Unfortunately, you can have animal allergies to any fur-bearing pet, including rodents, gerbils, mice, rabbits, guinea pigs, and hamsters.2 That said, more people are allergic to cats than dogs and other pets because of dander.
Cats are clean animals who spend a lot of their time grooming themselves. The allergens from their saliva get on their fur, so their dander is more likely to enter the air and stick to carpet, furniture, and clothing. Dogs don’t groom themselves as much as cats do, so it's possible people with pet allergies are allergic to dogs, but they don't realize it because the reaction is more severe around cats.
Anyone can have a pet dander allergy. However, individuals with existing allergies and asthma are predisposed to pet allergies.2 Exposure to pets early on may prevent allergies because it allows you to build tolerance and resistance to dander, but by the time you’re an adult, it’s too late for your immune system to adjust.
When Should You See a Doctor?
When to see a doctor for pet allergies depends on the severity of your symptoms. If your allergies affect your daily life, treatment is the best option. If your doctor suspects you have an animal allergy, they'll likely perform an allergy skin or blood test to determine what you're allergic to.
If you have an allergy skin test, your doctor will inject purified allergen extracts, including those with pet allergens, into your skin to look for signs of swelling that indicate an allergic reaction. These tests are accurate and can help you pinpoint whether you're allergic to pets within just a few minutes. Unfortunately, not everyone can have skin allergy tests. However, blood tests can also provide accurate results to screen for allergy-causing antibodies produced in response to common allergens like dander.
Once you're diagnosed with a pet dander allergy, your doctor can help you find the best course of treatment. While avoiding pets will prevent symptoms, it's not always possible, especially if you have one of your own. Instead, treatment options typically include allergy medications, such as antihistamines, corticosteroids, and decongestants.1 Depending on the severity of your symptoms and how often you're around pets, they may suggest the following:
- Nasal rinse to reduce mucus and rinse dander out of your nose
- Nose sprays to treat swelling and inflammation
- Eye drops to reduce itching and burning1
Another option is immunotherapy if you love pets and don't want to take daily medication. Immunotherapy allows you to train your immune system to stop responding to pet dander and is delivered through allergy shots that expose you to small amounts of the allergen. Unfortunately, immunotherapy is expensive, and you need regular maintenance shots every month for three to five years.2 Therefore, it's not a good option for everyone, especially when allergy medication is more commonly available and you can add it to your daily routine.
How to Prevent Pet Allergy Flare-Ups
Your pet is family, so if you've recently been diagnosed with a pet allergy and symptoms are manageable, you may take additional steps at home to prevent a flare-up. Along with medication, here are a few ways to prevent pet allergy symptoms:
Choosing a hypoallergenic pet
No pet is truly hypoallergenic, no matter how little fur it has, because all cats and dogs produce dander and reaction-causing proteins in their saliva and urine. However, some people may experience less severe symptoms with a certain breed.
Minimizing exposure to pet allergens
Unfortunately, if you live with a pet, dander is in the air, so it will be challenging to minimize exposure to it. That said, you can keep pets out of your bedroom to ensure your allergies don't affect your sleep and invest in air purifiers that can remove common allergens like dander and dust from your home. It’s also a good idea to use synthetic pillows, as pillows made with feathers can cause your symptoms to get worse. If you’re hanging out with friends who also have pets, try to meet outside your house as their clothing likely has dander on them, which can cause an allergy flare-up.
Investing in training
Why do dogs lick you? It's usually to get your attention, but they may also groom or kiss you to show their affection. In any case, you can train a dog to stop licking you with reward-based training to prevent allergic skin reactions, such as hives and itchy skin.
Regular cleaning and vacuuming
Dander on pet fur sticks to everything from furniture to your clothes and carpet. However, you can reduce how much of this allergen is in your home by cleaning regularly and vacuuming your carpet and furniture to remove pet hair. You should also clean litter boxes, bedding, and crates frequently. Keep any dog and cat beds clean and free of dander and pet hair. If you can, have a non-allergic family member handle the cleaning, as coming in close contact with the dander while cleaning can trigger a flare-up.
Bathing your pet
Bathing your pet regularly will help remove any saliva or urine on their fur, reducing the amount of dander they can spread. Of course, you don't want to bathe your pet too frequently because it can cause dry skin and irritation. However, you can talk to your vet about a moisturizing shampoo that will allow you to clean them more often. Dogs are easier to bathe than cats, especially on a hot summer day when you can take them outside. However, you should learn how to bathe a cat to help them stay calm and learn to tolerate the experience.
Washing your hands
There are many signs your dog loves you, and many of them involve physical contact. For example, dogs show their love by snuggling, licking, and leaning on you, which puts you in closer contact with more allergens. Even cats are social creatures that may knead you, rub up against you, or headbutt you to show affection. However, washing your hands after playing with, petting, or touching your pet can help you avoid more serious symptoms that can occur if you touch your face afterward.
Our pets are our best friends and they bring us a lot of joy. But that doesn’t mean that owning a pet comes easily. Sometimes, having a pet comes at the cost of dealing with pet allergies. Pet allergies are common and certainly frustrating, but fortunately, there are ways you can manage the sniffles and sneezes that come every time you give your dog a hug.
But while pet allergy treatment can reduce symptoms, there's currently no cure for pet allergies. Therefore, managing your symptoms is crucial if you own a pet. Luckily, most people can get relief by investing in allergy medication, depending on the severity of their symptoms. However, you can take steps at home to reduce flare-ups, such as cleaning your home and bathing your pet more often.
Additionally, some people are more allergic to some pets than others. For example, you can experience symptoms around cats but not dogs. Wondering which pet is right for you? Talk to a Dutch vet. Our licensed vets can provide advice for finding the best pet while managing your allergy symptoms. Then, once you become a pet parent, we can diagnose and treat various pet ailments to ensure their health and wellness.
“Pet Allergy.” Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America, 17 Jan. 2023, https://aafa.org/allergies/types-of-allergies/pet-dog-cat-allergies/.
“Pet Allergy.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 4 Aug. 2021, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pet-allergy/symptoms-causes/syc-20352192.