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Pet Allergies? How To Be A Good Guest, or Host

muddy dog on white sofa

Dec. 18, 2018 -- Getting through the holidays can challenge anyone, but Andrea and Paul Schmitt of North Hollywood, CA, have an extra issue. Paul has a severe allergy to cats. Their 9-year-old son has an allergy to dogs.

Andrea's mother invites them to visit for holidays, but she has a beloved Maltese dog. Paul's sister, who lives out of state, also invites them, but she has a golden retriever she loves just as much.

"We tend to host most of the time," Andrea says. But that's not always possible.

When it isn't possible, as Andrea and many others have learned, it's crucial to think ahead and to plan out how to lessen the misery for the allergy-prone. This may require an uncomfortable talk with your host -- one that touches on housekeeping standards.

Pinpointing exactly how many people deal with this is difficult, even with statistics. In the U.S., as many as 50 million Americans have allergies, and as many as 3 in 10 of them are allergic to dogs and cats, the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology says. And about 62% of U.S. households have a pet, according to estimates by the academy. Besides dogs and cats, less common household pets, such as gerbils, can cause problems for the allergy-prone, too.

People who are allergic have oversensitive immune systems that react to harmless proteins in a pet's urine, saliva, or dander, the dead skin cells.

WebMD asked people with allergies who have been there, along with allergists, what they can do to limit the itching and sneezing.

Being a Proactive Guest

Think through the visit before it happens, Andrea Schmitt suggests, including how much time the allergic person will be exposed. Will it be just a dinner, or several days? It can make a difference.

She learned that lesson the hard way about 5 years ago, when they visited her sister-in-law -- the one with a golden retriever -- for a family graduation. "There was a lot of dog exposure," she recalls. Everything seemed OK until the Schmitts packed up to leave. "Our son had an allergic reaction on the way to the airport," she says, still recalling how frightening the experience was. They quickly pulled over, used an EpiPen, rushed to the emergency room, and missed their flight.

For long stays that include much exposure, Schmitt says, booking a hotel is safer and easier.

Taking medicines ahead of time, as advised by your doctor, can help, says Maria Garcia-Lloret, MD, a pediatric allergist at UCLA Medical Center Santa Monica and Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA. She advises her pet-allergic patients to start taking an antihistamine the week or so before a stay of a few days where there are pets. She finds that if people take a medication at least 4 or 5 days before a stay, during it, and maybe continue for a day or so later after leaving, they can often do OK. They also need to remember not to play with the animals and wash their hands if they sit on upholstered furniture.

Some with pet allergies have other issues. "About 80% of those with asthma have allergies of all sorts, and some just have pet allergies," says W. Andy Nish, MD, chief of asthma and allergy for the Northeast Georgia Physicians Group in Gainesville. People with asthma and pet allergies should follow their medication schedule for controlling the asthma carefully, he says.

"If someone's asthma is not well-controlled, and you get that one extra 'straw,' such as exposure to cat dander," he says, it could cause a reaction severe enough to require emergency care.

People who have other allergies -- for example to dust mites -- should take along special pillow covers to lessen symptoms, says Nish, who’s also a fellow of the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology.

If a family is staying at a hotel during a visit, Garcia-Lloret also suggests exposing children who are pet-allergic gradually, maybe taking them to the house where the pet lives for an hour the first day (after they have taken their medication) and gradually introducing them to the animals, watching reactions carefully.

Being a Helpful Host

Hosts can also do things to cut the chance of allergy attacks among sensitive visitors, say Garcia-Lloret and Nish. Their best tips:

  • Keep the pet out of the room that the guest will use, she says. If possible, run a small HEPA air filter in the room to remove the allergens from the air.
  • The filter will help, but it won't create an allergen-free environment. The protein in cat dander, especially, is hardy and can take months to break down.
  • Clean the room aggressively: Steam-clean carpets; scrub walls and woodwork.
  • Wash all bedding, especially if the animals have been lying on it, and pet bedding.
  • Vacuum all furniture, especially upholstered pieces. Make sure the vacuum has a “certified asthma and allergy friendly filter.” Otherwise, you’re pushing all the allergens into the air.
  • Take up area rugs to cut allergens.
  • Grooming the pets ahead of time also helps.
  • Make a plan to keep the pets away from guests as much as possible, confining them to one room or area. The room or area should be away from the bedroom where the allergic guest sleeps.

Allergies: Myths vs. Facts

Myths abound about pet allergies.

Despite what some owners say, there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic pet, says the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

"Not all cats and dogs are created equal," Garcia-Lloret tells her allergic patients and parents. "Your child may react to a neighbor's cat but not Grandma's cat." This is because some animals’ dander has fewer allergy-triggering proteins. The fewer triggers, the fewer symptoms.

Also, "it's quite common to be allergic to both cats and dogs," Nish says.

Some people swear the length of a pet's hair is connected to how severe an allergic reaction will be, but there is no such link, says the academy.

Tracking Symptoms

It's important to keep an eye on symptoms that may indicate a problem, agree Garcia-Lloret and Nish.

Be on the lookout for;

  • A hive-like rash on the skin, sometimes the first signs of a problem
  • Sneezing, wheezing, or itchy and watery eyes
  • Congestion, which often happens when the exposure is constant

Anaphylaxis. This is a severe allergic reaction that requires an epinephrine shot, then emergency care right away. It can begin anywhere from 5 minutes after exposure to the allergen or more than an hour later, experts say. Symptoms include a red rash with hives or welts, usually itchy; throat swelling; difficulty breathing or a tightness in the chest; vomiting; diarrhea; and a red or pale complexion.

Dealing With the Deniers

One last thing, Andrea Schmitt suggests: When her husband tells people he has a severe allergy to cats, he has sometimes gotten pushback -- as in "How could that be?" or "No, you don't."

Her suggestion: Just believe a person who tells you they have a severe allergy to animals. And try to help.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on December 17, 2018

Sources

W. Andy Nish, MD, chief of allergy and asthma, Northeast Georgia Physicians Group, Gainesville; fellow, American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Maria Garcia-Lloret, MD, pediatric allergist, UCLA Medical Center Santa Monica and Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA.

Andrea Schmitt, parent, North Hollywood, CA; volunteer, UCLA Health Food Allergy Program, Los Angeles.

International Archives of Allergy and Immunology: “The Major Cat Allergen, Fel d 1, in Diagnosis and Therapy.” 

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: “Control Indoor Allergens to Improve Indoor Air Quality,” “Pet Allergy: Are You Allergic to Dogs or Cats?”

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: “Anaphylaxis Symptoms & Diagnosis,” “Pet Allergy Overview,” “Allergy Facts.”

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