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Pet Allergies

Pets account for the majority of household allergies in humans. The majority of individuals with pet allergies suffer from other allergies or have preexisting respiratory conditions and sensitivities such as asthma. Between 15% and 30% of individuals with other sensitivities find that they are also allergic to cats and dogs.

Although pet hair and dander do cause allergies in some people, the majority of allergic reactions result from exposure to pet saliva. The proteins in the saliva adhere to the hair when the animal licks itself. Since cats are more prone to grooming than dogs, people tend to have a higher reaction to cats than their canine counterparts.

Some individuals may find that they are allergic to some dog breeds and not others, while others find that they are allergic to only cats. People with sensitive or hypersensitive immune systems have a tendency to react to otherwise harmless particles. The saliva proteins and dander from cats and dogs is detected by their immune system which sets off the allergic reaction.

Sensitive and allergic individuals may even find that they are allergic to other people, simply because the person is carrying pet dander or saliva proteins on their clothing.

Dander, or skin cells, can also carry this protein into the air and onto furniture. Once saliva dries, it sticks to the skin and becomes airborne as the dog or cat sheds cells. The same holds true for animal fur. The protein adheres to the hair and, as the animal sheds, the hair sticks to furniture, floors and clothing, eventually coming into contact with the allergic individual.

Although allergies to these proteins may take up to two years to develop, they can take six months to disappear after the animal is removed. The allergy-inducing proteins can remain in the furniture for up to six weeks, causing symptoms for the duration of that time. This is important to individuals moving into a residence with previous pets or purchasing used furniture or clothing from pet owners.

As rodents increase in popularity as domesticated pets, more people are discovering sensitivities to these animals. Rats, guinea pigs and gerbils are some of the most popular domestic rodents and individuals can develop allergic reactions to components in the animals' urine.

Allergic Symptoms

Symptoms vary between individuals and levels of exposure. Sensitive individuals will develop inflammations in the mucus membranes and histamine release (causing itchiness) in the affected areas. These symptoms are especially severe if the dander or saliva protein particles land on the membranes on the eyelid or the membranes of the nose.

Severely allergic individuals, especially those with asthma and other breathing problems, may suffer from coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath within 15 to 30 minutes of exposure to the pet or contaminated individual. Because the allergens are so small, they can become airborne, adhering to dust and dander particles in the air. When a sensitive individual breathes in these particles, the allergens go to the lungs and the individual suffers symptoms related to breathing. Sometimes these same individuals might develop a rash on the face, neck, or chest.

For less sensitive allergic individuals, the reaction may be slower and not appearing until hours or even days after exposure or contact with the pet.

Diagnosis

Doctors usually recommend that individuals suffering from allergies remove themselves from the pet's environment in order to determine the source of the allergy. Since allergens can remain in an animal's environment long after they are gone, allergy sufferers must remove themselves from the contaminated surroundings.

Cat-induced asthma is diagnosed by determining if asthma symptoms are present during exposure to cats or cat saliva proteins and by a skin or blood test. Doctors usually use a RAST (radioallergosorbent) test to determine the cause.

Preventing Pet Allergies

Allergic and sensitive individuals have options. The first, and most effective option is removal of the animal from the residence and finding it a new home. This is also referred to as source control. Although this is seldom the most desirable option, it is the most effective and permanent allergy prevention.

Sensitive individuals also need to refrain from contact with any other animals and avoid visits to locations frequented by animals.

If the allergic person wishes to own animals, he or she may want to consider owning an animal that is free of fur or feathers. Fish, reptiles, snakes, and turtles are popular alternatives to cats and dogs.

Just because a cat or dog does not have fur (the hairless cat or dog) does not mean it is free from allergens. These breeds still shed contaminated skin cells. Hairless and non-shedding breeds, however, such as schnauzers and Airedales help keep dander and hair to a minimum and help prevent the spread of the allergens to furniture and clothing.

Some individuals find that, after a period of a few weeks or months, their sensitivities decrease and they are able to cohabitate with the furry individual with little or no symptoms. Other measures include:
  • Bathing cats with mild soap every other week and brush them frequently. Brushing the cat will prevent protein-contaminated hair from adhering to furniture or clothing.
  • Prevent cats or dogs from entering sleeping areas. People spend approximately eight hours a day in their bedrooms and by keeping it free of hair and dander, sensitive individuals can find relief at night.
  • Remove carpets. Fibrous carpets collect dander and fur and are difficult to keep clean of small allergens.
  • Frequent vacuuming can help decrease dander, but air purifiers with HEPA (High Efficiency Particle Air) filters can help capture airborne allergens and keep the air cleaner.
  • Use a face mask while cleaning the cat and/or the furniture.