The Causes and Symptoms of Pet Allergies

Pet allergies are one of the most common forms of allergies, particularly allergies to cats and dogs. They can lead to other allergic diseases such as allergic rhinitis (hay fever) and asthma.

The Primary Source of Cat Allergens is Not Fur, but the Sebaceous Glands in their Skin

Cats love to lick themselves, and – as the sebaceous glands are the primary cause of cat allergens – this licking spreads the allergens around. Cat allergens are sticky and they glue themselves to hair and dust particles to create a persistent aerosol. They also get stuck to other things in the house. As ever cat has a sebaceous gland, all breeds of cats can stimulate allergies. There’s no such thing as a hypoallergenic (allergen-free) cat breed.

Even after recognising you have a cat allergy and getting rid of your cat, the allergens from them can remain in the house for up to 6 months, and they can persist in cat bedding for up to 4 years. Allergens are so pervasive they can be found in the homes of non-pet owners and on clothing worn by people who don’t even own pets. Cat allergens have even found their way to the Antarctic, which is impressive because no cats have ever been there!

The Primary Source of Dog Allergens in Saliva

Given the primary source of dog allergens is their saliva, dander (skin particles) and hair help to spread the allergens. This means that, as with cats, all dog breeds potentially cause allergies. Even so, there are some breeds of dogs that don’t shed as much as others, meaning they don’t produce as much dander and may be less allergenic than others.

Other Animal Allergies

While allergies to other animals aren’t as common as dog allergies, people can be allergic to all creatures great and small including mice, rats, horses, guinea pigs, rabbits, birds, and more. The transmission of allergens from these rabbits to clothes can be enough to trigger an allergic reaction and disease such as rhinitis and asthma.

Testing for Animal Allergies

It’s important to understand that up to half of all people that are allergic to animals don’t show immediate symptoms of their allergy. If you are concerned that you are allergic to a pet – either your own or someone else’s – and it is causing allergic reactions, a doctor can test you for allergies using skin prick tests and allergen specific IgE allergy tests known as RAST tests. You might have to be referred to an allergy/immunology specialist to get an allergy test done.

A negative allergy test in children doesn’t mean that they won’t later develop an allergy to their pets in the future.

Some studies suggest increasing exposure to animals like cats and dogs can help to reduce sensitivity and allergic disease, but others have suggested that increasing exposure actually has the opposite effect and increases sensitivity. It should be clarified that when people have shown allergic reactions and are already sensitive to animals can reduce and prevent their symptoms by avoiding the animals they are allergic to.

How to Prevent Pet Allergies

Some simple lifestyle changes have been shown to help prevent pet allergies. They are:

  • Not bringing animals into the home in the first place
  • Finding any existing pets new homes
  • Avoiding smoking, as exposure to environmental smoke causes some allergies – including allergies to pets – more likely to develop

More difficult lifestyle changes and changes that haven’t been proven to be effective are:

  • Restricting pets to one part of the house
  • Keeping pets out of the bedroom of the person allergic to them
  • Using highly effective air cleaners, whether portable or central
  • Removing carpet and other allergen holders from the bedroom
  • Washing pets on a regular basis

Other Options

If you are going to have trouble avoiding exposure to animals, there are treatment options including medication such as intranasal corticosteroid sprays (INCS) and antihistamines, which are used for hay fever. Another option is allergen immunotherapy – known as desensitization – which has been shown to work for some people. This allergen immunotherapy should only be conducted by clinical immunology/allergy specialists.

Photo Credit: “Cats” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by cuatrok77

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