A Careful Balance: Living with Both Pets and Allergies

March 7th, 2019



Puppies may be fat, furry balls of energetic joy to some people, but they mean wheezing, sneezing, itching and coughing to others. Pet allergies can be exasperating – but furry companions are so ubiquitous that for those who are allergic to them, the symptoms are near impossible to avoid altogether.

Just about every warm and fuzzy critter we bring into our homes can cause allergies: cats, dogs, birds, hamsters, even ferrets. But it’s not the pet hair, or the dander itself, that causes allergies – it’s a specific protein in the dander that causes a reaction. These proteins can be found in animal dandruff, urine and saliva. The proteins are tiny and easily launched into the air everywhere a pet goes (or has recently been).

Common symptoms of pet allergies include a stuffy nose, runny eyes and coughing … very much like seasonal allergies. Other symptoms can range from mild — itchy throat, nasal congestion, and sneezing — to a more severe, asthma-like response, including wheezing, and shortness of breath.

To help the house allergens of your cat, dog or hamster in your home, there is a lot you can do to manage your animal allergies. Before you try the following tips, it’s a good idea to make sure you really are allergic to dander. If you’re not sure you are allergic to dogs, cats, or other pets, make an appointment so that we can help identify which specific allergen is triggering your symptoms.

The best way to find relief from allergies is to avoid exposure to the things you’re allergic to – but this isn’t always possible, or desirable. If you need to live with a pet, try keeping healthy boundaries. Keep your bedroom pet-free. This can significantly decrease levels of allergens in that space. Try switching to special bedding designed to be less permeable to allergens. Or try a HEPA filter to remove tiny airborne pollutants from the air you breathe. Don’t settle for a close (and cheaper) substitute – de-ionizers and purifiers may actually make allergies worse by releasing harmful ozone gas.

Keep your space clean. Vacuum often and change furnace filters frequently to reduce the dander in the air. Shampoo rugs regularly, and change bedding (people and pet) frequently. Wipe down walls where pets often rub. If it’s an option, choose hard-surface floors over carpets and wipeable furniture over upholstery to reduce the number of places where allergens can build up.

Bathing your pet can help in the short-term, but the benefits are transient, lasting just a few days. More effective is giving yourself a scrub by washing hands and face frequently. Over-the-counter allergy medications, such as antihistamines, can relieve mild allergy symptoms like nasal congestion and itchy eyes, but they won’t help asthma-type symptoms, such as wheezing and chest tightness. Talk to our doctors if you think you’ll benefit from prescription allergy medication or shots.

But understand that no matter how careful you are, you’ll likely still be exposed to dander. Pet allergens are “sticky,” making it easy for people to carry them on their clothes. You’ll even find them in places that have no pets, such as schools, workplaces, and pet-free homes. But you can alleviate the worst of your symptoms by being careful and attentive in the space you live.