Pet Allergies: What You Need to Know

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on June 06, 2023
4 min read

When it comes to pet allergies, cats and dogs get most of the blame. But they're not the only pets that can make you cough and sneeze. Any animal with fur or hair can trigger an allergic reaction.

Your immune system is always on the lookout for foreign bodies that could make you sick. When it finds them, it makes proteins called antibodies to protect you. But sometimes, your immune system makes a mistake. It makes antibodies to fight off something that's not harmful -- like your pet.

The most common pet allergies include:

  • Dogs and cats: Your pet doesn't set off an allergic reaction -- it's what's trapped in their hair or fur. Saliva, sweat, pee, and dander (dead skin cells) can all trigger allergies. Pet fur also traps mold, pollen, and other outdoor allergens that make you sneeze and your eyes water.
  • Small rodents and rabbits: Despite their small size, the hair, dander, and saliva on the fur of these animals can set off an allergic reaction. And the urine of rodents like gerbils, mice, and hamsters also has chemicals some people are allergic to. These get into the air as your pet moves around its cage or bedding.
  • Birds: Mites that live in bird feathers are a common allergen. The fine dust in bird droppings can trigger a reaction, too.
  • Horses: It's rare, but in some people, the allergen in horse dander can cause a life-threatening reaction. Children are most at risk.

If you're allergic to your pet, you may notice symptoms right away or they might not crop up for a few days.

They can include:

  • Chest tightness, wheezing, or trouble breathing
  • Congestion
  • Coughing
  • Eczema
  • Facial pressure or pain
  • Hives (raised, red patches of skin)
  • Itchy or watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Skin rash
  • Sneezing
  • Swelling that looks blue under your eyes
  • Waking up a lot during the night

Some of these are also signs of a common cold. But if they last more than 2 weeks, you could have an allergy and should see your doctor.

No matter what you may have heard, no furry animal is truly hypoallergenic. Dander can build up in any type of hair or fur, even if it's short or your pet doesn't shed much. It even happens in breeds described as "hairless."

If you want a pet that doesn't make you cough and sneeze, you'll need to choose one without any fur or feathers, like a fish, turtle, or snake.

It might be best for your health to steer clear of all furry or hairy pets.

But if you can't bear the thought of giving up Fido or Fluffy, you can do a few things to help keep your symptoms in check:

  • Keep your pet out of your bedroom.
  • Try not to hug or kiss your pet. If you do, wash your hands with soap and water.
  • Bathe your pet once a week. Brushing and grooming often can help get rid of dander. Have someone who isn't allergic to it do this, or hire a professional groomer.
  • Keep pet areas clean. Wash dog and cat beds once a week. If you have a small pet, like a gerbil or rabbit, clean its cage and change its bedding often. Try to convince a non-allergic family member to handle the job. 
  • Vacuum often. Look for a vacuum cleaner with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
  • Don't give dander a place to hide. Clear away clutter, swap carpets for hardwood floors, and use wooden or plastic blinds instead of cloth curtains.
  • Get an air purifier. If you leave it on 24-7, it can help get rid of allergens in the air.
  • Cover HVAC vents with cheesecloth to catch particles before they're blown into the air.
  • Use synthetic pillows. Ones made with feathers can make your symptoms worse.
  • Visit with pet-owning friends outside your home. Their clothes can bring dander with them. Meet them at a restaurant or somewhere else instead.
  • See an allergist. They can test you to find out what kind of allergy you have. For the short term, you might get relief with antihistamines and over-the-counter allergy medicines. Allergy shots can help over the long run.