Survival Guide for Pet Allergies

Do you have pet allergies? Setting boundaries and making a few changes can make all the difference.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 19, 2008
4 min read

It’s an all-too-common scenario: Your five-year-old begs and pleads for a dog or cat every chance she gets. She even promises to care for the new pet every day. You know, though, that’s not going to happen. It’s clear that task is going to fall on your shoulders. But that’s not even the biggest problem. The biggest problem is someone in your household has pet allergies.

Not even Barack Obama’s family is immune to such issues. Eldest daughter Malia has pet allergies. So when they launched their search for a new first pet for the White House, they set out to find a hypoallergenic dog.

There may not be such a thing as a hypoallergenic pet. But experts say that by observing certain precautions, millions of people who have pet allergies -- including Malia Obama -- can avoid allergy triggers and have a dog or cat of their very own.

“There is some debate in this area,” says Rohit Katial, MD, an allergist at National Jewish Health in Denver. “Most allergists will tell you that there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog or cat,” Katial says. “That’s because the allergens are produced in saliva, skin glands, and urine. The hair is just a carrier.”

Your beloved pet sheds flakes of dead skin called dander. It’s in these flakes, not the fur, that the proteins people with allergies react to lurk. Katial tells WebMD that it’s possible someone could be allergic to even a bald cat. It is the dander that triggers the most significant allergic reactions.

But there’s more. Your dog or cat’s saliva gets on its fur when it cleans itself. It also clings to your skin after those loving, but slobbery kisses. Coming in touch with the saliva triggers the pet allergy -- the sniffling, sneezing, and watery itchy eyes that someone with an allergic reaction experiences.

There is good news. Neither you, your child -- nor the first family -- has to watch longingly from the sidelines as others cuddle with cocker spaniels, play Frisbee with golden retrievers, or snuggle on the couch with tabby cats. “The fact there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog doesn’t mean that people with pet allergies can’t have pets,” Katial says.

Katial tells WebMD there are ways to reduce the pet allergen load in the home -- even in the White House.

Here’s how you can have a pet and manage allergies too:

  • Rent, before you buy. Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of respiratory care at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City advises, “If you are not sure how a family member will react to a pet, spend some time with a friends’ dog or cat.” That way you can determine how big an issue pet allergies may be.
  • Consider a less cuddly pet. If the rent-a-pet experiment doesn’t go well, Schachter says, “try to convince the person with the allergy to get a non-allergenic pet like a turtle or boa constrictor.”
  • Make Fido an outdoor pet. Keeping your dog or cat outside can obviously reduce the amount of allergens in the home. But, according to Katial, this may not be an acceptable solution for many allergy-suffering pet lovers.
  • Invest in a HEPA filter. High-efficiency particulate-arresting (HEPA) filters can remove almost all of the animal dander that’s in the air. You may want to consider a portable filter. But some HEPA filters can be attached to the furnace and may be efficient enough to clean the air in the entire house.
  • Give Fluffy a bath once a week. Katial says that washing your pet once a week can greatly reduce the allergen load in the home -- and so reduce pet allergies.
  • Keep Fido out of the bedroom. For many pet lovers, there is nothing more pleasurable than snuggling up with a miniature schnauzer or a Siamese cat in bed. But pet allergies should make the bedroom a pet-free zone.
  • Remove carpets, upholstered furniture, and heavy drapes. These home furnishings can’t be washed. As a result, they can become a repository of pet allergens. “There should be no wall-to-wall carpeting in homes with pet allergies,” Schachter tells WebMD, “because it allows for the accumulation of hairs, urine or saliva in the carpet. It’s much easier to clean wood or tile floors than wall-to wall carpet.”
  • Commit to taking your allergy meds. “Medications,” Katial says, “will treat the symptoms of your pet allergy. But the symptoms come back if you stop taking your allergy medications.”