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Animal Allergy Avoidance

The Asthma Center, Allergic Disease Associates, P.C.
Professional Arts Building
205 North Broad Street, Ste. 300
Philadelphia, PA 19107-1553


Furry pets are much-loved members of many households. Over one half of homes (about 25 million) in the United States have a cat and/or dog, accounting for over 100 million pets. Unfortunately, about five to ten percent of Americans are allergic to pets. Family members and others who enter your home may suffer from animal allergy. Symptoms may include itchy, teary, swollen, red eyes and eyelids and/or a runny, itchy congested nose .Susceptible people might develop symptoms of coughing, wheezing, and/or shortness of breath. Occasionally, sensitive people will develop hives at the site of contact with their pet or their pet’s saliva.

Some people who are allergic to their own pets have no immediate worsening of their symptoms in their homes. Instead they suffer from constant low-grade symptoms that only clear up after days or weeks away from the house. More sensitive individuals often have difficulty controlling their symptoms even with medication. Complications of pet allergy can include chronic sinus headaches and infections, nasal polyps, asthma, and even hives.

Most people think pet fur or hair is the problem. Pet allergy symptoms actually result from exposure to animal proteins found in the pet’s skin, saliva and urine. While the fur may be coated with proteins deposited from dried saliva, it is the dander that is the major source of pet allergen. Dander is the layer of dead skin, rich in animal protein, which is continuously shed.Sebaceous (oil producing) glands in the skin also produce these protein allergens. Male cats have, on average, greater amounts of sebaceous secretions and therefore are more allergenic than female or neutered male cats. This is a result of testosterone hormone effects on sebaceous glands.

Pet dander can cause allergy symptoms through direct contact or by transfer of the dander to the eye, nose or skin. However, most symptoms are caused by airborne dander that comes into contact with the mucous membranes of the eyes and nose. Animal dander can also be inhaled into the bronchial tubes. Allergenic proteins are found in homes for up to 6 months or more after a pet has been removed. Low levels of animal dander have even been found in homes without pets. These low levels may be caused by a pet owned by a previous occupant or by someone who inadvertently transports animal dander into the home on his/her clothes and hair. Common heating or air conditioning systems in apartment buildings may also spread pet allergens if some of the residents have pets. These low levels of pet dander exposure can cause chronic symptoms in sensitive people. Allergic individuals can also have symptoms in school classrooms, office settings, and other places where pets are not directly present. Unfortunately, there are no “non-allergenic” or “hypoallergenic” breeds of cats or dogs. It is a myth that short haired animals are not allergenic. Dark haired cats, however, tend to produce more symptoms than light haired cats. Although certain breeds may be more or less allergenic for some people, there are no “safe” furry pets if you are sensitive.

Did you know that people are twice as likely to be allergic to cats as they are to dogs? There are several possible explanations for this:

  1. Cats often lick themselves as part of a constant grooming process, depositing additional saliva-based allergen on their pelts.
  2. The allergenic protein from cats may be more “sticky” than other animal dander. This explains why it is found for longer periods of time on carpets, floors, walls, bedding and furniture.
  3. Cat dander protein may simply be more allergenic than other animal proteins.
  4. Cats often live in extremely close contact with their owners.
  5. Many people are so sensitive to cats that as soon as they enter a home with cat dander, they immediately experience severe symptoms. This explosive response can occur, less commonly, with dog dander exposure.

Animals other than dogs and cats can cause allergy symptoms. Guinea pigs, rabbits and gerbils have strong allergens in their dander and their urine. Laboratory workers, zoo personnel, and veterinarians may encounter severe difficulty with allergy to other animals, including horses, rodents, and less commonly, the large cats (lions and tigers) and primates such as monkeys. Bird feathers and droppings can also cause allergy symptoms. People with mold allergy can have symptoms due to bird droppings and accumulation of mold in the cage (dust can also be a problem). Fish tanks can cause symptoms because of mold growth.

The best way to control pet dander allergy is to remove the pet from the home environment. For many people, however, removing the family pet is difficult and emotionally painful. When it is impossible to remove the pet, we recommend several measures that may reduce your exposure to animal dander and allow you to live with your pet.

  1. Eliminate Animal Allergen Hideouts
    Aside from the pet, carpets, bedding, upholstered furniture and air ducts are the biggest reservoirs in the home for cat and dog allergen. The more carpeted surface you have, the more allergen there will be in the air. Animal dander may also survive in mattresses for years; therefore, buying new bedding and encasing pillows, mattresses and box springs are advised. Upholstered furniture is also a problem and all attempts should be made to keep pets off of stuffed furniture. Walls can also be coated with allergen and should be washed periodically or wiped with a synthetic electrostatic cloth like the Swiffer or Grab-It products. Avoid purchasing used items from homes with pets since this furniture may be a rich source of animal dander. Be aware that any significant source of animal allergen can be a problem if it is near the intake of a forced air heating system or within the system itself. Periodic duct cleaning may therefore be helpful. Avoid putting litter boxes near the air intake vents. Wash pet blankets frequently but not with other clothing or bedding material.
  2. Remove Allergen From Your House
    Frequent vacuuming will help.It is important to use a vacuum that has a microfiltration bag or is HEPA filter equipped (see dust mite information). Although good outdoor ventilation may reduce dander levels, it may cause problems during the pollen seasons if you or a family member is pollen allergic. Placing a HEPA filter air cleaner in the home is an important way to control animal dander and pollen exposure (see air cleaner information). Since animal dander is carried on clothing, ask visitors to your home who own pets not to wear clothing that has been in contact with their pets.
  3. Remove Allergen From Your Pet
    There are several scientific studies that show that washing your pet weekly will reduce the allergen load that it carries. In one study, airborne allergen was reduced by 85%. This is a difficult task, though it may be easier if you start washing the pet as a puppy or a kitten. Products like Allerpet (available at local pet stores) and Dander-Seal (WINA Products, Inc. 1-800-321-1085) claim to decrease allergen if used regularly and may be easier to do than bathing your pet.It is not clear how effective these products are. Of course, washing your pet is best left to a family member who is not sensitive to animals. In general, the pet allergic individual should not groom the pet or clean the litter.
  4. Keep the Pet Out of Your Bedroom
    This can be best accomplished by keeping the door to the room closed at all times. Wireless fence systems can be installed indoors to keep the animal out of certain areas of the house, including the bedroom. It is best to restrict pets to non-carpeted/non-bedroom areas of the home. There are also devices that emit sound waves that are inaudible to humans, but keep dogs and cats at a distance from the bedroom (Technoscout 1-800-704-1211). You can also ask one of The Asthma Center physicians about finding out levels of animal dander in your home.
  5. Medical Treatment and/or Allergy Injections
    Despite these measures, symptoms often persist.If this is the case, both allergy medications and/or allergy injection treatments may help. Newer anti-allergy medications have fewer side effects and work very well. They include non-sedating antihistamines and nasal sprays (containing cromolyn, corticosteroids, or antihistamines). For symptoms involving the eyes, drops containing similar medications are also very helpful. People with allergic asthma can use inhalers containing cromolyn, bronchodilators, or inhaled corticosteroids. New asthma medications called leukotriene modifiers (Singulair, Accolate, and Zyflo) can also help some people. Another form of treatment involves allergy injections, also known as immunotherapy. A series of injections containing allergy-causing protein (cat and/or dog) is given regularly. This form of treatment is highly recommended if a pet is in the home and causing frequent symptoms. Allergy shots are given as long as you are still exposed to the animal(s). Scientific studies have shown this to be a very effective form of therapy in treating cat and dog dander allergy. Results may be permanent.

In summary, animal dander allergy can significantly contribute to repiratory problems involving the sinuses, nasal passages, eyes, as well as cause lower respiratory tract problems resulting in asthma. These problems can significantly diminish one’s quality of life despite medical treatment. For some people, it is even more serious, leading to recurrent acute asthma episodes that can be life threatening, and require emergency room visits and hospitalizations. The good news is that most animal allergic people can keep their symptoms under control if they practice allergen avoidance, take medications and/or allergy injections as recommended by an allergy and asthma specialist.

Printed with permission from The Asthma Center, copyright 2008