About 7 out of 10 of households in the United States have a pet.1 But many people have animal allergies, especially people who have other allergies or asthma. Allergies to cats and dogs affect 10 to 20% of the world’s population.2
Allergies to pets with fur, such as cats and dogs, are common. Even rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, ferrets, and horses can cause allergy symptoms. People can also be allergic to animals with feathers (birds like parrots or parakeets).
When you have a pet allergy, you are not allergic to the pet’s hair, fur, or feathers. You are allergic to the protein that is found in the pet’s dander (dead skin cells) saliva, and urine. The hair, fur, or feathers collect the dander. It can also carry other allergens like dust mites, mold, and pollen. When those proteins get into your airways, eyes, nose, mouth, or on your skin, it triggers allergy symptoms.
Cat, dog, and other animal allergens can land on the membranes (soft tissue) that line the eyes and nose. You can also breathe in pet allergens into your airways. Animal allergy symptoms can include:
It is common to get itchy eyes after petting an animal and then touching your eyes. A pet scratch or lick on your skin can cause the area to become red and itchy. You may get hives. Pet allergy can trigger an asthma attack if you also have asthma.
People with pet allergies have different levels of sensitivity to pet allergens. Some people have very minor symptoms, while other people have severe symptoms. If allergen levels are low, symptoms may not appear until after several days of contact with the pet.
Animal allergens can get into the air. Many airborne allergens are small enough to get into your lungs. For some people, this exposure can make it very hard to breathe. An asthma episode can begin within 15 to 30 minutes of inhaling allergens. Learn more about allergic asthma.
All dogs and cats can cause allergy symptoms. People with dog or cat allergies may tolerate some breeds more than others. People may think those breeds are “hypoallergenic,” but a truly non-allergic dog or cat does not exist.
You can be allergic to the animal’s skin cells, urine, and/or saliva. These have different proteins your immune system may react to. Research is looking into if there is a way to change the proteins so that they don’t trigger symptoms.
When choosing a pet, consider fostering one first to see if you have an allergic reaction. Another option is to choose pets that do not have fur or feathers. Fish, snakes, or turtles are some good choices.
Cat and dog allergens are everywhere. Cat allergens are especially sticky. Pet allergens can be found in homes, classrooms, workplaces, and other places where pets have never been. This is because people can carry pet allergens on their clothing.
Pet allergens can collect on furniture and other surfaces. The allergens may cling to walls, fabric furniture, and clothing. They can stick to carpets, pillows, and other surfaces. They may remain at high levels for several months. Pet allergens can cause symptoms up to six months after the animal is gone, especially cat allergens.
Allergens can get into the air when you pet or groom an animal. Once allergens have settled, they can be stirred into the air again. This can happen during dusting, vacuuming, or other household activities. Once airborne, the particles can stay in the air for long periods.
Because animal allergens are everywhere, it can be challenging to manage your symptoms if you have a severe allergy.
When you have moderate-to-severe allergies, it is best to see a board-certified allergist. Your doctor will diagnose a pet or animal allergy based on your medical history, symptoms, a physical exam, and allergy test results. Allergy testing is the best way find out if you allergic to a specific animal type. Your doctor can use either a blood test or skin test to help get a diagnosis.
You can develop allergies at any time. And allergies can change over time. It is possible you were not allergic to your dog in the past, but you are now.
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) advocates for equal rights for people with asthma and allergies on planes. Our advocacy helped put new rules into place on U.S. airlines that limit emotional support animals on planes. But there is still more work to do to make flying a safer environment for people with pet allergies. Join our community to receive AAFA Advocacy Action Alerts. You will receive updates on this issue, as well as other legislation that affects people with asthma and allergies!
A pet allergy can be stressful to manage. It can be difficult to visit friends and relatives who have pets or farm animals. It may be especially hard for children who cannot visit the homes of friends. Pets in classrooms can also be challenging for kids. Talk with your doctor about how to best manage your animal allergy. They may recommend taking medicine before contact with animals. They will also help you with what steps you should take after being around animals.
Avoiding animals is not always possible nor the choice many people make. When you can’t completely avoid pets or animals, there are medicines and steps you can take to control your symptoms.
Allergy treatment (medicines): There are over-the-counter or prescription medicine options for animal allergies. Options include antihistamines and corticosteroids.
Allergy Medicine Guide for Pet Allergy
Nasal rinse: Using a saline (saltwater) nose rinse can help cut down mucus and rinse pollen out of your nose. Remember to use these as directed.
Nose sprays: Corticosteroid nose sprays are effective and have few side effects. They treat the swelling and inflammation in your nose. (Examples include Nasacort®, FLONASE®, and RHINOCORT®.) Antihistamine nasal sprays such as Astelin and Patanase are also effective options.
Eye drops: Allergy eye drops can be very helpful in managing eye allergy symptoms. They can relieve burning sensation, itchiness, redness, increased tearing, and swelling. Common eye drops include SYSTANE® ZADITOR®, Optivar, and Pataday®. In addition, artificial tears can be helpful.
Antihistamines: Antihistamines come in pill, liquid, or nasal spray form. They can relieve sneezing and itching in the nose and eyes. They also reduce a runny nose and, to a lesser extent, nasal stuffiness. Look for a long-acting, non-drowsy antihistamine. (Examples include ZYRTEC®, Claritin®, Allegra®, CLARINEX®.)
Decongestants: Decongestants are available as pills, liquids, nasal sprays, or drops. They help shrink the lining of the nasal passages and relieve stuffiness. They generally are only used for a short time (usually three days or less – examples include SUDAFED®, Vicks Sinex™, Afrin®). Check with your doctor before using decongestants if you have high blood pressure, glaucoma, thyroid disease, or trouble urinating.
Leukotriene modifiers (such as montelukast): This medicine can help by blocking chemicals your body releases when you have an allergic reaction. (Examples include SINGULAIR®, Zyflo CR®, ACCOLATE®.)
Cromolyn sodium: This is a nasal spray that blocks the release of chemicals that cause allergy symptoms, including histamine and leukotrienes. This medicine has few side effects, but you must take it four times a day. (Examples include NasalCrom®)
Allergy shots: If other treatments and steps are not working, allergy shots (immunotherapy) can be very effective. They require a time commitment and multiple appointments. Your allergist injects a small amount of allergen into your skin. They watch you for symptoms. Over time, the amount of allergen they inject is increased. This treatment trains your immune system to tolerate the allergen better. Talk with your allergist to see if this option is right for you.
Allergen-reducing cat food: If you have a cat, you can now buy cat food that can reduce cat allergens. One product available is Purina Pro Plan LiveClear. The food neutralizes a common allergen, Fel d1, found in cat saliva.
Animals become a part of your family. If your allergy is manageable, you may want to keep your pet. Here are some ways to manage pet allergens in your home:
Reduce your exposure to pet allergens.
Clean and reduce allergens in your home.
If your symptoms continue and you decide to rehome your pet:
Note: Pet dander can remain in a home for up to 6 months after the pet has been removed.
Using CERTIFIED asthma & allergy friendly® products in your home can help you have a healthier indoor environment, as well as reduce allergens.
Learn more about the asthma & allergy friendly® Certification Program by visiting aafa.org/certified.
Medical Review: June 2022 by John James, MD
1. Pet industry market size, trends and ownership statistics. American Pet Products Association. (n.d.). https://www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp.
2. Chan SK and Leung DYM. Dog and Cat Allergies: Current State of Diagnostic Approaches and Challenges. Allergy Asthma Immunol Res 2018 March;10 (2) 97-105.