When You're Allergic to Your Pet

Allergic to your four-legged friend? An expert explains how you can both live happily ever after.

Medically Reviewed by Will Draper, DVM on January 15, 2015
3 min read

As much as you love Fido or Fluffy, you don't love the runny nose and itchy eyes that come along with them. What is it about some furry friends that makes you react like this? And more important, how do you stop it?

It is possible for pet-allergic people to live happily with their pets, says John Costa, MD, medical director of the Allergy and Clinical Immunology Practice at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. He explains what you need to know.

What causes my symptoms?

Cats and dogs have unique proteins in their saliva, sweat, urine, and skin that can trigger an allergic reaction in people. When sweat, saliva, and urine dry on your pet's fur, they form a coating called dander, which has allergens. The dander dries, cracks, and falls onto your carpet, your furniture, and your clothes. You can inhale it or transfer it from your hands to your eyes and nose.

"Dander is like a glazed doughnut when the glaze breaks into little pieces and falls all over the place," Costa says.

Cats and dogs give off different allergens. You can be allergic to one but not the other. You can also become allergic because more exposure to allergens over time, including pollen, dust, mold, and pet allergens, can push you to your allergic limit. Also, as your pet ages or their health declines, they can make more of an allergen than before. On the other hand, neutered animals produce fewer allergens.

How can I create a sneeze-free home?

First, consider making your bedroom a pet-free zone. "On average, you spend about a third of your life in the bedroom. If you can make that part of your home dander-free, that's a simple, reasonable compromise that lets you keep the animal in your home while you can breathe freely in this one privileged space," Costa says.

Keep the door closed at all times, and try a HEPA air filtration device in the bedroom. A nonporous floor, such as varnished hardwood, with limited carpeting also will help keep the bedroom free of dander, Costa says. And remember: Pet dander can remain in a room or a home for several months after pets are removed. "Carpet can be a reservoir for stored dander."

Is it time to medicate?

For some people, a pet-free bedroom could do the trick. Others might need more help.

"What works for you might not work for me, depending on where we each fall on the allergic spectrum," Costa says. "So animal owners may need to use medications on a regular basis to blunt the allergic reaction that is still going on.”

Start with long-acting, non-sedating antihistamines you can buy over the counter. If necessary, add an OTC anti-inflammatory nasal spray, Costa says.

If these don't bring relief, he recommends allergy shots. Allergy shots and allergy drops or tablets that go under the tongue are like vaccines: They expose the immune system to small amounts of the offending allergen. But while vaccines boost the immune response, allergy shots quiet down the response that leads to allergy symptoms.

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