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How Pets and Allergies Can Go Hand in Paw

Understanding pet allergies so you can your have your pet and live with it, too.

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Matthew Hoffman, MD

Can allergic people and pets live side by side?

Your new girlfriend enters your apartment, glances around, then achoo! Your husband has spent three years glaring at Fluffy-Pie, but you won't give her up. What do you do?

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Causes of Pet Allergies

Eleven million people are allergic to cats alone. About 15% of us are allergic to animals.

People who love pets and don't have allergies should not become complacent. "You can develop an allergy at any time," Derek K. Johnson, MD, director of allergy and immunology at Temple University Children's Medical Center, tells WebMD. "That's why it's important to know what causes pet allergies. It's the flakes from the animal's skin, called dander, not the fur. So even if it's a bald cat, you can be allergic."

The animal's saliva on the fur from cleaning itself or on your skin from slobbery kisses can also incite a reaction. Pet urine can also be a culprit.

"To be exact," Pamela A. Georgeson, MD, a board-certified allergist at the Kenwood Allergy and Asthma Center in Chesterfield Township, Mich., tells WebMD, "a lot of people are allergic to a cat protein called FEL-d1 found in dander and saliva."

Allergies are more commonly caused by cats, says Dean C. Mitchell, MD, a board-certified allergist in practice in New York.

"I have had people come to me from all walks of life," he continues. "Some people can't even go to Thanksgiving at a house with a pet. I see veterinarians with allergies, pet groomers."

Symptoms of Pet Allergy

People, especially kids, may not even know they are allergic. The proteins cause the body to produce histamines, which result in sudden eye itches, wheezy breathing, or a rash.

Children can be declared to be prone to colds and not allergic. Children can also be diagnosed as asthmatic, and pets can exacerbate asthma.

Allergies can be hereditary. If you had asthmatic bronchitis a lot as a child, you may develop a cat allergy later in life. "No one is born with an allergy," Johnson points out, "they develop in some people from exposure."

Interestingly, according to Johnson, there is "very compelling information" that children exposed to animals before their immune systems are fully formed at age 2 are unlikely to become allergic.

Of course, such symptoms can result from other causes. Ask your doctor about a test for pet allergies.

Coping With Pets in the Home

"We have a three-pronged approach," says Georgeson. "First is avoidance. "You need to limit the areas of the home where the animal is allowed, primarily the bedroom and the bed. Don't forget how much time we spend breathing and touching things in that room."

"Shut the bedroom door," Johnson says.

Other tips:

  • Buy a HEPA filter. All three physicians recommended this. HEPA filters can be portable or home-wide.
  • Remove dander-trapping carpets. "Install tile or wood that can be cleaned thoroughly," Georgeson advises. (Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter, too.)
  • Wash bedding frequently in hot water (dust mites, which do not come from animals, are also powerful allergens). Washing flushes away dander that has settled on the bedding.
  • In some cases, consider closing off house-wide ducts to the bedroom and using portable heating and cooling.
  • Do not allow the pet in the car or use washable seat covers.
  • Wash your hands after playing with the animal.
  • Clean and vacuum regularly.

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