Behavior Tip of the Month
Michael Schatz, MD
Chief, Department of Allergy, Kaiser Permanente, San Diego, California
Myths Versus Truths About Those "Dog-gone" Pet Allergies
"No you can't have a dog! You know your father is allergic to dogs!" Have you heard that phrase, or something like it before? I heard it throughout my whole childhood and I'm sure many people are hearing it right now, from parents, relatives, doctors, etc.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, the myth of that time was the belief that if you were allergic to one thing, you were automatically allergic to everything. Hence, my father, who had asthma and a stuffy nose due to grass pollens, ragweed and oak trees, must also have been allergic to dogs and cats. I don't think he ever showed any symptoms around cats and dogs, but we all took it for granted that furry pets would bring on an asthma attack.
Now we know better. We know that allergies are specific to certain things. For example, I'm allergic to cats (darn !) but not to dogs (thank goodness). However, there are still myths about allergies to pets. Many people consider them truths, but they are based on no scientific evidence. They can cause untold damage to you, your family, and your pets. What are some of these myths?
People are allergic to the pet's hair. If you get a short haired or hairless pet who doesn't shed, then your allergy symptoms will get much better. Wrong! The assumption that people are allergic to an animal's hair is untrue. Allergy sufferers are allergic to an allergen protein found in the pet's dander (dead skin flakes). Allergens get carried through the air on very small, invisible particles. They can cause allergic reactions when they land in the eyes or the nose. They can also be inhaled into your lungs. Usually these reactions appear quickly. For some people, reactions can build up over several hours. They may actually peak in severity up to twelve hours later.
Certain breeds are less likely to cause allergic reactions then others. I have heard "dog experts" advise allergic pet owners to get a tightly-curled or hairless breed. People however, are allergic to dander, not hair. No breed's dander has been shown to cause lesser or greater reaction than any other. Thus recommendations to choose certain breeds over others are illogical.
What is true is that each animal, regardless of breed, produces a certain amount of dander per week. These amounts can differ between individual animals. For this reason, you can be allergic to one pet and less allergic to another. This is regardless of coat type. Unfortunately, the amount of dander shed by an individual dog or cat can't be measured. It is very difficult to predict how you will react before you and the family become bonded to that adorable puppy or kitten.
The body's resistance to a particular allergen increases through continued exposure. Therefore, your allergic reaction will decrease the longer you live with an animal. Some patients report this, but the majority of pet owners don't really get better. They may just get used to their symptoms, or simply no longer connect them to their pet. In addition, many allergy sufferers are allergic to other things as well. They may mistakenly attribute their symptoms to other triggers than their pet.
If I don't notice that my symptoms are worse when I'm with my pet , then I'm not allergic to him, right ? Wrong. Dander builds up in the house. Therefore, the allergy sufferer will be exposed to the dander even if the pet's in another room. Also, remember that allergic reactions can occur not only within the first thirty minutes. They could start anywhere between four and twenty-four hours later.
Allergy shots are usually a safe and effective treatment for pet allergy sufferers. Allergy shots, or allergen immunotherapy, consists of weekly injections of the allergens to which the person is allergic. The solution injected starts out very dilute with the concentration gradually building in strength each week. This continues until your body builds up an immunity to the allergens. Sounds too good to be true, right? Unfortunately, it's not true. The extracts currently used for dander allergy don't appear to work that well. Some can cause an unacceptable allergic response., Hopefully, someday, the dander extracts may be more effective and safe, but they aren't as of now.
A dog can be given a tranquilizer (Acepromazine) which will lessen a person's allergic response to him. Unfortunately, this is another myth. A study from the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, published in the Journal of Allergy, 1995, showed that this is not true with cats. There is no equivalent study on dogs. With the above information however, one could surmise that it's unlikely that Acepromazine would reduce allergies to dogs either.
So, having corrected these myths, what is recommended for allergic pet owners? Must you give up your pet? Any allergist will tell you that that is the most effective treatment for your allergy symptoms. However, a survey published in the New England and Regional Allergy Proceedings 1987 (8:185-188) reported that 73% of pet owners said they would not give up their pets if advised to do so by their doctors. So what can an allergic pet lover do?
Keep the pet completely out of your bedroom, and any other room you spend a lot of time in
. This could really help reduce the dander in these rooms and, hopefully, some of your symptoms.
Bathe your dog or cat weekly with ordinary pet shampoo and water
. You probably should also use a coat conditioner after the bath to prevent your animal's coat from getting too dry.
Buy an air purifier with a HEPA filter
. These are designed to reduce airborne allergens in your home. Try to get a central air purification system or a purifier for every room the pet frequents. Your bedroom should be a top priority.
Some other suggestions were printed in the Winter, 1996 issue of the Asthma and Allergy Advocate. This is a newsletter produced by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology:
Try to have as little carpeting as possible
. Dander builds up in carpeting. Vacuuming can stir it up and send it out into your house again. You can try to get a vacuum filter and do as much steam cleaning as possible. The best solution may be to get hardwood floors and scatter rugs which can be taken up and washed.
Replace bedding that has animal dander in it
. It takes months, even years, for animal dander to decrease once the animal vacates the premises. It may be expensive to replace bedding. One hopes, however, that your improved quality of life will be worth it.
See an allergist to confirm and treat your specific allergies
. Usually people who are allergic to pets are allergic to other things also. Let's say, hypothetically, that 25 % of your symptoms are caused by dog or cat dander. The remaining 75% are due to grass, dust, etc. Perhaps your allergist can minimize your response to grass, dust, etc., Hopefully, the 25% of symptoms due to your pet will be something that you can live with comfortably.
There are some new medicines that can be effective in treating your allergy symptoms. Your allergist is the best person to decide what drugs will be effective for you.
Try following these suggestions. Hopefully, you will be able to comfortably keep your pet with you as a valued part of your family. In that way, both you and your beloved pet can have the quality of life you both deserve.
Carole & Michael
Further readings on allergies and animal dander:
Coping With Allergic Reactions To Pets (http://www.cvm.uiuc.edu/ceps/petcolumns/allergic.html)
Allergies to Pets: Facts and Myths (http://www.cuhumane.org/topics/allergy.html)
Best Friend Behavior Counseling and Training
San Diego, Ca.
"Positively teaching pets and their people since 1977"
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The information contained on this site is in no way intended to replace that of proper veterinary advice, diagnosis or treatment.
It is meant to provide resource, so that we can better understand canine health related issues.