Updated 23 May 2017

Pets and allergy control

You may know that cats can cause allergic reactions, but do you know what other animals can cause allergies?


You may know that cats can cause allergic reactions. What you may not be aware of is that dogs, rats, mice, guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, birds, horses, cows, chickens, ducks and geese do so too.

Animal fur doesn’t cause allergies itself, but can collect dust, pollen, mould and other allergens. The major problem with animals is their skin, which flakes off and can be allergenic. The dried saliva on cats’ fur is also a major problem.

It’s usually too traumatic – and unnecessary – to remove the pet from the household, so here are the measures you should take instead:

Cat Allergy

  • Cat allergy is the most common pet allergy. It affects nearly half of asthma sufferers. A protein allergen found in the cat's skin flakes and saliva is deposited on the fur when the cat licks itself. It’s then shed into the air and can be deposited on the walls and clothing in the home.
  • Because it’s so small it can stay airborne for months. If inhaled by the allergy sufferer, it’ll lead to an allergic reaction within minutes. The allergic reaction usually includes itchy eyes and nose, sneezing, asthma and itchy skin rashes.
  • Studies have shown that more than 80% of asthmatic children whose home contained a cat at birth and during the first year of life developed a cat allergy. This incidence was far lower with dogs.

What can you do?
Vacuum the carpets, floors and beds thoroughly each week. Bath your cat weekly, too. Cats bathed from an early generally don’t mind being bathed.

The cat should also be banned from the allergy sufferer’s bedroom. These measures, together with wiping down of the bedroom walls with a damp cloth to remove allergen deposits, regular airing of the home and thorough vacuum cleaning will reduce the level of cat allergen. A special exhaust filter should be fitted to the vacuum cleaner to prevent the small allergen particles from going straight through the machine and back into the air.

Face masks can be used when cleaning or brushing the cat, and clothes should be changed after contact with a cat. It can take up to six months to sufficiently reduce household levels of the tiny cat allergen.

Dog allergy
Dogs have a number of allergy-provoking protein particles in their saliva and skin scales. Dog allergy is less common than cat allergy, and the longer haired breeds which carry more skin scales seem to provoke allergic reactions more frequently A dog's lick may set off a severe allergic response. So can breathing in the allergen particles.

Other pets
With rabbits, rats, mice, hamsters and guinea pigs the most important sources of allergens are the saliva and urine. Once dry, they become airborne and can be a source of allergy for children and laboratory animal workers.

  • Horse and cow skin scales can be allergenic to those exposed to them.
  • Birds carry allergy-provoking mites, moulds and pollen on their feathers.
  • Budgie droppings can release proteins into the air that induce insidious lung problems and asthma.
  • Some people develop allergies to the ant's eggs upon which tropical fish feed, as well as moulds that grow in the fish tank.

If the measures listed above don’t work, oral antihistamines and injections can be used to treat the symptoms. (Health24, updated 2011)

Read more:
What are the main allergy triggers?
Allergy Society of South Africa (ALLSA)


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Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies.

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