Allergies to pets with fur are common, especially among people who have other allergies or asthma. In the United States, as many as three in 10 people with allergies have allergic reactions to cats and dogs. Cat allergies are about twice as common as dog allergies.
People with dog allergies may be more sensitive to some breeds of dogs than others. Some people may be allergic to all dogs. People may think certain breeds of dogs are “hypoallergenic,” but a truly non-allergic dog or cat does not exist.
The job of the immune system is to find foreign substances, such as viruses and bacteria, and get rid of them. Normally, this response protects us from dangerous diseases. People with pet allergies have over-sensitive immune systems. They can react to harmless proteins in the pet's urine, saliva or dander (dead skin cells). The symptoms that result are an allergic reaction. The substances that cause allergic reactions are allergens.
Pet allergens can collect on furniture and other surfaces. The allergens will not lose their strength for a long time. Sometimes the allergens may remain at high levels for several months and cling to walls, furniture, clothing and other surfaces.
Pet hair is not an allergen. It can collect dander, urine and saliva. It also can carry other allergens like dust and pollen.
Cat and dog allergens are everywhere. Pet allergens are even in homes and other places that have never housed pets. This is because people can carry pet allergens on their clothing. Also, allergens can get into the air when an animal is petted or groomed. Pet allergens can also be stirred into the air where the allergens have settled. This can happen during dusting, vacuuming or other household activities. Once airborne, the particles can stay suspended in the air for long periods.
Cat and dog allergens can land on the membranes that line the eyes and nose. Reactions 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. It is common to get itchy eyes after petting an animal then touching your eyes.
If allergen levels are low or sensitivity is minor, symptoms may not appear until after several days of contact with the pet.
Many airborne particles are small enough to get into the lungs. For some, this exposure can cause severe breathing problems. Highly sensitive people can begin coughing, wheezing and have shortness of breath within 15 to 30 minutes of inhaling allergens. Sometimes highly sensitive people also get an intense rash on the face, neck and upper chest.
Contact with a cat can trigger a severe asthma episode (asthma attack) in up to three in ten people with asthma. Cat allergies also can lead to chronic asthma.
Your doctor will diagnose a pet allergy based on your symptoms, physical examination, medical history and test results. Your doctor can use either a blood test or skin test to aid in the diagnosis. Allergy testing will show if there is allergic sensitization to the animal.
Some people find it hard to believe that they could be allergic to their pets. The doctor may tell you to stay out of the home where the pet lives to see if your symptoms go away. It does not help to remove the dog or cat, because the allergen will remain. Pet allergens still in the home can cause symptoms months after the animal is gone.
The best treatment is to avoid contact with cats or dogs or the areas where they live. Keep pets out of your home. If possible, try to avoid visiting homes with pets that you are allergic to. Avoiding cats and dogs may give you enough relief that you will not need medicine.
Keeping the pet outdoors will help, but will not rid the house of pet allergens. Another option is to choose pets that do not have fur or feathers. Fish, snakes or turtles are some choices.
Pet allergy can be a social problem making it difficult to visit friends and relatives who have cats and dogs (and sometimes horses and other animals). This may be especially troublesome for children who cannot participate in activities at the home of friends. Talk to your doctor about possible use of medication before these social exposures and specific measures to take after the exposure.
Removing the pet from the home is often the best treatment. However, if you still want to keep your pet, there may be some strategies to reduce exposure.
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Medical Review October 2015.