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Finding the Perfect Pet for Your Allergic Child


If your kids are like mine, they love animals.  If my children had their way, our house would be filled with penguins in the bathtub, dolphins swimming in the pool, and fluffy polar bear cubs bouncing off the sofa. All kidding aside, we’ve had our share of the typical American pets and a few unusual ones. At first, the pets were chosen for compatibility and just plain cuteness.

We started with two guinea pigs. I had grown up with guinea pigs and was not allergic to them at all. My son, who was 2 at the time, gently played with them and really loved watching them.  One evening, he was rubbing his right eyelid and when he came closer to me I realized the eye was swollen the size of a lemon! In fact, the white sclera was filled with fluid and was starting to swell over the iris. I called a neighbor who was an eye surgeon and he told us to come to his house so he could examine him.  The doctor said my son was having an allergic reaction to something he touched and then touched his eye. He knew it wasn’t something he ate because only one eye was swollen. We gave our son Benedryl and the swelling subsided within 24 hours. We realized some time later that the guinea pigs were the allergen and decided to find them a new home.  

Giving away a pet is heartbreaking for children.  It’s somewhat easier if you have just acquired the pet but very difficult if the pet has been a part of the family.  After the guinea pig scare, we decided to have our son tested to see if he was allergic to other animals. At his age, the standard test is an agonizing skin test.  Rows of plastic nibs are pressed into the back or arm to lightly scratch the skin’s surface. Then, the nurse puts a drop of the allergen on the scratch.  The patient waits about ten to fifteen excruciating minutes without touching or scratching the test areas. For toddlers, this procedure can be really frustrating. For older children, it is no picnic either.  The scratch test areas have a control allergen that produces a positive result for each test to make sure the test is working.  For some children, the entire back is used for the test. Tests include typical allergens such as mold, grasses, trees, pollens, and of course animals.  After the allotted time, the doctor will measure the size of the allergic response. Large red raised hives the size of half dollars indicate a huge reaction while smaller reactions are the size of a pea or not at all.

The list of animals you may be tested for include specific animals and breeds. For example, you may be allergic to parakeets but not cockatiels. We were very surprised that our son’s largest reaction was to horses and cats. He had never been near a horse and yet this created the largest super hive. However, what we were really searching for was what he was not allergic to. As it turned out, he was not allergic to birds or rats and was slightly allergic to dogs.  

Allergy testing can be a crucial part of selecting a pet and can prevent much heartache for children. If your child has any allergies, it may be beneficial to test for specific breeds. Doctors may not stock the test but they can order them for you. Animal shelters are filled with loving pets that their owners could not keep due to the children’s allergic reactions. Of course, children can become allergic to their pets over time, but perhaps a little due diligence would guide you to the best pet choice for your family.

Janet Millan