by Lyn T. Garson, CVT, CCRP
My allergy test results produced a lengthy list of common offenders, from dust to various trees, but I was shocked to hear the top two – dogs and cats! The allergist’s response? “I’m not going to advise you to leave your veterinary career because that’s just not practical, you have to work. What you need to do is get rid of all your pets.”
Life without animals was inconceivable. I became determined to find other ways of managing allergy symptoms. That was 30 years ago, and while I still deal with allergies today, I’ve never parted with any of my pets or reconsidered my line of work because of them.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, approximately 50 million people in the United States suffer from allergies. Of these, three in 10 are allergic to dogs and cats, with cat allergies twice as common as those from dogs. All allergies are caused by a reaction to a specific protein. Airborne protein particles are so tiny that they can easily cling to surfaces within the environment, or remain suspended in the air and inhaled. These proteins, referred to as allergens, trigger allergy symptoms in certain people, or more specifically, an overreaction of the immune system. So regarding pet allergies, it is not the fur itself or even the dander (dried skin flakes) that cause reactions but rather the specific proteins found within dander, skin, saliva, and urine. Neither the length of a cat’s coat nor the breed of cat is of significance. Even having “hairless” breeds or shaving the cat doesn’t alleviate allergy symptoms because all cats still groom/lick their skin, releasing proteins into the air. That said, human reactions can vary from cat to cat. It is also important to consider that pet hair not only collects but can carry other allergens such as dust, pollen or mold, which a person may be allergic to instead of, or in addition to, the pet itself.
People experience varying levels of severity with regard to pet allergy symptoms – from red, watery or swollen eyes, excessive sneezing, nasal congestion and/or runny nose, to itchy skin, shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing, to name a few. Reactions may intensify the more a person is exposed to allergens. Severe allergies may be life-threatening. Since allergies can develop at any age and some symptoms mimic other illnesses, such as the common cold, it is always best to consult your doctor or allergist for appropriate testing.
The best method of alleviating allergy symptoms is to avoid what you are allergic to. As an analogy, think of your body as a cup: allergens are cumulative and each time you encounter an allergen, your cup begins to fill. When too many allergens enter the cup, they overflow and if you are susceptible, you experience a reaction. So if your top priority is to keep your pets, focus on reducing as many allergens as possible by following these tips:
Regularly dust and vacuum household surfaces, including corners, and wipe down walls. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter, keeping filters and dust containers clean. If possible, replace carpeting with hardwood floors, and choose blinds instead of fabric curtains or drapes. Leather or vinyl furniture is preferred over furniture that is upholstered with fabric that can trap allergen particles. Swap your current pillow for a hypo-allergenic type. Frequently wash couch covers, pet bedding and towels in hot water.
Designate one pet-free room, preferably the bedroom. Consider purchasing freestanding air purifiers with High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filtration for your bedroom and other living areas. Use air conditioning in your home and vehicle. Keep windows closed and avoid using window fans that can pull allergens from the outdoors.
Allergy medications are available in both over-the-counter and prescription strength. Traditional immunotherapy is commonly used to treat allergies by injecting a small amount of allergen into a person’s skin on their arm. These allergy shots are typically administered weekly for several months, and over time gradually introduce higher levels of allergen into the system, with increasingly longer intervals between treatments. The entire desensitizing process may take several years but since immunology actually changes the immune system, the positive effects can be life-long. A procedure called Rush immunotherapy works on a much more rapid desensitizing schedule and may be worth talking about with your doctor.
Bathing pets mitigates allergens, but only for a few days. Frequent bathing may actually cause the skin to dry out and increase the problem. Daily brushing or combing is an effective method of reducing allergens – and moistening the fur before grooming can be especially effective.
Managing your allergies takes work and planning, but by making some lifestyle changes, both you and your pets can live much happier and healthier lives – together!