A pet allergy is caused by proteins in an animal’s dander (tiny flakes of skin shed by animals with fur or feathers), saliva and urine. In addition, hair or fur from an animal can collect pollen, mould spores and other outdoor allergens, such as grass, which can also trigger allergies.
This means that pet hair itself is not an allergen – the problem is that it collects and harbours all the allergens mentioned above.
Many breeds of animals are marketed as being hypoallergenic, which means they are unlikely to cause an allergic reaction – but do such breeds actually exist?
No such thing as an allergy-free breed
The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology says that while dog breeds like white poodles, Portuguese water dogs and certain types of terriers have a reputation for being hypoallergenic, there is no such thing as an allergy-free breed.
Many people believe that getting a pet with shorter hair will keep allergies under control but according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology allergic dander is not affected by how long the fur is or how much the animal sheds.
A study, published in the American Journal of Rhinology & Allergy, collected and analysed 173 dust samples from homes with dogs, including so-called hypoallergenic breeds. The results were interesting – the levels of allergens did not differ between hypoallergenic and non-hypoallergenic breeds.
“Any way we looked at it, there just wasn’t a difference,” said senior author and epidemiologist Christine Cole Johnson. “There is simply no environmental evidence that any particular dog breed produces more or less allergen in the home than another one.”
The same goes for cats – there are no studies to show that hypoallergenic breeds exist. Like with dogs, allergens are carried in the dander, saliva and urine. The length of a cat’s fur, its gender or even how much time it spends indoors does not influence allergen levels. However, higher levels of allergens can be found in homes with multiple cats.
Don't fall for marketing claims
"Contrary to the many marketing claims made to appeal to people with allergies to pets, there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog," veterinarian and director of well-being studies at Best Friends Animal Society Franklin D McMillan told The Huffington Post in an email. "People can be allergic to anything, although for any one person certain animal species, breeds and even individuals may trigger fewer allergy symptoms than others.”
He reiterates that the most common cause of pet allergies is to the dander from an animal’s skin and the protein in the saliva that sticks to these flakes. "The pet’s hair itself isn’t a significant problem – it’s the dander that is attached to the shed hairs. The fur and dander then stick to carpeting, furniture, and clothing."
Causes and symptoms of a pet allergy
Your immune system is responsible for finding foreign substances (viruses and bacteria) and removing them. If you are allergic to pets, your immune system is oversensitive, which means you'll have an allergic reaction to harmless proteins found in urine, saliva or dander.
Pet allergies can cause the following reactions:
- Runny or blocked nose
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Coughing and wheezing
- Shortness of breath
- Skin irritation, hives or rashes
- Asthma attacks
Manage your allergy and keep the pet
People are quick to get rid of the animal that is causing the allergic reaction but this is often not necessary. Here are seven ways to manage your allergy:
1. Keep pets out of the bedroom. Make sure you clean regularly and thoroughly.
2. Animal allergens can stick everywhere, so remove carpeting to reduce your exposure to the allergens and keep surfaces dust-free.
3. If you cannot get rid of carpets, make sure you steam clean them regularly.
4. Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter and wear a mask when cleaning – this will protect you from any allergens the vacuum will stir up.
5. Change your clothes if you have been exposed to an animal for a long period of time.
6. Wash your pet once a week – this can help reduce airborne allergens. Or ask someone without an allergy to brush the pet outside to remove as much dander as possible. Keep litter trays and cages clean.
7. Speak to your doctor about medication you can take to alleviate symptoms.
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