Pet Allergies: Making It Work

With a few changes you can keep your companion animal -- and manage your pet allergies, too.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on January 08, 2008
5 min read

Do pet allergies have you wheezing and sneezing -- again? Well, there are over 132 million good reasons for that.

That's the number of cats and dogs living in U.S. homes as of 2002, says the American Veterinary Medical Association. And while these four-legged friends are by far the most common companion animals in America, they aren't the only creatures behind the exasperating symptoms of pet allergies.

You'll find pet dander on just about every warm and fuzzy critter we bring in to our homes: from cats and dogs, to birds, hamsters, and ferrets. And just about anything with dander has the potential to bring susceptible people down with a suite of allergy symptoms, says allergist Asriani Chiu, MD.

But it's not a pet's hair, or even the flaky, dandruff-like dander itself, that causes allergies. Instead "it's a specific protein in the dander that people are allergic to," says Chiu, associate professor of pediatrics and medicine (allergy/immunology) at the Medical College of Wisconsin. "With any allergy, from hay fever to peanut allergies, it's always a protein in the substance that you're reacting to."

Pet allergy-producing proteins -- called allergens -- are also found in your pet's urine and saliva. Add to this the fact that these proteins are tiny, easily airborne, and ubiquitous, and it explains why some people can develop pet allergy symptoms simply by walking into an empty room.

What are the most common symptoms of pet allergies? "I get a stuffy nose and runny eyes, very much like seasonal allergies," says Anthony Herrig, an Oregon web developer with cat allergies. Other symptoms can range from mild -- itchy throat, nasal congestion, and sneezing -- to a more severe, asthma-like response, including coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

Usually, not everyone in a family or household is allergic to pets. Just as you have your mom's smile or dad's laugh, you may have inherited your family's genetic predisposition to allergies. Add to this a higher risk of developing allergies to pets if you have other allergies or asthma, and it's clear why you may be alone in your congestion. What's not clear just yet, says Chiu, is why one person can have mild symptoms, while another is laid low with an acute, asthma-like response.

Fortunately, there's a lot you can do to manage pet allergies -- no matter how they affect you. But before you try the following tips, it's a good idea to make sure you really are allergic to dander. If you're not positive you are allergic to dogs, cats, or other pets, visit an allergist, who can help identify which specific allergen is triggering your symptoms.

Though the best way to find relief from allergies is to avoid exposure to what you're allergic to, you can have your precious pets and live well, too. Allergists and pet allergy sufferers offer these tips:

  • Keep Your Bedroom Pet-Free. Something as simple as making your bedroom a pet-free sanctuary "can significantly decrease levels of allergens" in that space, says Alan Goldsobel, MD, a spokesman for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Goldsobel also suggest switching to special bedding designed to be less permeable to allergens.
  • Consider a HEPA Filter. HEPA filters remove tiny airborne pollutants, like dust mites, pollen, and pet dander, from the air you breathe. "Dander is so airy and light that HEPA filters can filter it out of the air," reducing your exposure, Chiu tells WebMD. Within a given area stand-alone filters are typically more effective than a whole-house HEPA system, Chiu adds. As for those air de-ionizers/purifiers often hawked on late-night infomercials, they may make allergies worse by releasing harmful ozone gas.
  • Learn to Love Housework. "I try to vacuum the bedroom frequently and change furnace filters to reduce the dander in the air," says Herrig. Other allergy sufferers tackle pet allergies by shampooing rugs regularly, changing people and pet bedding frequently, wiping down walls where pets rub, and dusting often. And to reduce the number of places where allergens can build up, Goldsobel suggests converting to hard-surface floor and minimizing the amount of upholstered furniture in your home
  • Wash Your Hands. Some people bathe their companion animals in an effort to reduce pet dander, but this approach is "very transient" Goldsobel tells WebMD. While washing does decrease the amount of shed allergens, the effect lasts mere days -- while the cat's bad mood may last far longer! More effective is giving yourself a scrub by washing hands and face frequently.
  • Mediate With Medication. Over-the-counter allergy medications, such as antihistamines, can relieve mild allergy symptoms like nasal congestion and itchy eyes, but they won't help asthma-type symptoms, such as wheezing and chest tightness. Talk to your primary care physician or an allergist if you think you'll benefit from prescription allergy medication.
  • Consider Allergy Shots. If you know you'll be around pets long-term -- for example, your young kids have a new puppy -- you might want to consider allergy shots. These shots are also called allergy vaccines. Allergy shots help you develop protective antibodies so that you won't have an allergic reaction when exposed to an allergen. Allergy shots require patience, however. It can take almost a year of weekly injections before you convert to monthly maintenance doses, then another 3-5 years of monthly shots before you no longer have allergy symptoms -- and need no more medication.
  • Understand Your Environment. No matter how religiously you clean, you'll still be exposed to dander. Pet allergens are "sticky," making it easy for people to carry them on their clothes. This explains why you'll find them in places that have no pets, such as schools, workplaces, and pet-free homes.
  • Expand Your Definition of "Pet." If, after Fido or Fifi have passed on, you still crave a pet's companionship, think creatures without feathers or fur. Allergy experts recommend turtles, geckos, lizards, snakes, fish -- even tarantulas.

Finally, "don't give up hope," says Anthony Herrig. With a few lifestyle changes and a little help, you can enjoy pets all your life!