Whether you’re choosing a new pet or coming into a situation where a pet is already present, if you have pet allergies, you are going to experience a whole different set of challenges.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, 15 to 30 percent of all Americans are affected. Allergies to cats are about twice as common as compared to dogs. Pet allergies can be severe and cause people to have a constant stuffy nose, itchy eyes, or even to have trouble breathing.
Omar Waqar, MD, an allergist-immunologist with ENT and Allergy Associates, says, “An allergy is a reaction that occurs when the body’s natural defenses (immune system) overreact to a foreign substance called an allergen. Allergens themselves are harmless; it is our body’s extreme response to them that causes the unwanted symptoms.”
In the case of pets, the allergy is not just to the fur, as many people believe. Rather, it comes down to animal dander, an otherwise harmless protein found in a pet’s skin, saliva, and urine, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“And all animals with fur or feathers have dander–our pets can spread dander all over any home whenever they scratch behind their ears, chase a favorite toy around the room, or just by living a normal, happy life,” says Waqar.
Waqar suggests that “the best-case scenario if you have pet allergies, is to have non-fur pets—like reptiles or fish. But that can sometimes be out of your control — or it just may not be what you truly want in a pet.”
What’s the best way to manage pet allergies? There are several strategies you can employ to minimize the effects.
1. Get Tested For Allergies
It is important to see an allergist and be tested to determine what allergies you actually have. If an allergy test shows that you are allergic to your pet, it is important to understand what causes your allergic reaction to them. There are allergy-triggering proteins called allergens in saliva and skin glands that cling to an animal’s dry skin (dander) and fur. The fur and dander then stick to walls, carpets, and clothing.
2. Use HEPA Air Filters
Use air filters and avoid dust-and-dander-catching furnishings such as cloth curtains, blinds, and carpeted floors.
3. Make Sure Your Bedroom is “Pet-Free.”
If there’s one place in the house you should keep your pets away from, it’s your bedroom. A good night’s sleep is essential to overall health, and minimizing allergens where you sleep just makes sense. Even if you can’t bear the thought of banishing them from your room altogether, keep them off your bed. Create an “allergy-free” zone in all allergic persons’ bedrooms—and strictly prohibit the pet’s access to it.
4. Bathe Your Pets Regularly
To reduce the level of allergy-causing dander (old skin cells), bathe your pet regularly or take them to a groomer. Cats can get used to being bathed, but it’s critical to only use products labeled for them; kittens may need a shampoo safe for kittens. Check with your veterinarian’s staff or a good book on pet care for directions about safe bathing. It’s a good idea to use a shampoo recommended by your veterinarian or other animal care professional.
5. Clean Your Rugs and Carpets Frequently
Clean your rugs and carpets often to thoroughly remove dust and dander. Wash articles such as couch covers and pillows, curtains, and pet beds. Make sure to vacuum carpets once a week with a device that has a HEPA filter. These suck up tiny bits of matter, like pet dander, that other vacuums might miss, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI). If you have rugs, be sure to launder those once a week. Pet dander can also stick to hard surfaces like walls and floors, so be sure to clean those regularly based on the proper care instructions for the materials in question.
6. Stay Clean Yourself
Considering we are advised to wash our hands thoroughly to prevent all kinds of ailments, it should come as no surprise that hand-washing will send allergens down the drain and keep them away from you. After petting your furry friend, be sure to wash your hands and face. Also, change clothes if you have been in close contact with a pet—but do try to protect yourself from a reaction by not hugging or kissing on them too much!
7. Keep Your Pet Off Lounging Areas
Upholstered furniture can also attract dander, so keep your pets off the couch and similar pieces of furniture. You may also want to cover your furniture with towels or blankets that can be washed regularly.
8. Keep Your Allergy Medications Within Easy Reach
Depending on your specific allergy and severity, speak to your allergist about over-the-counter or prescription medications that might make the allergy bearable as you take all of the other measures to minimize the allergens in your environment. Options include antihistamines, eye drops, steroid nasal sprays, and inhalers. Even if your family decides not to keep pets in the home, it’s best to have a medication plan for when you visit homes with pets.
9. Consider Immunotherapy and Allergy Shots
Allergy shots, or immunotherapy, are regular injections of small amounts of your allergy triggers over a period of three to five years. It is important to find an allergist who understands your commitment to living with your pet. A combination of approaches—medical control of symptoms, good housecleaning methods, and immunotherapy—is most likely to succeed in allowing an allergic person to live with pets.
10. Know When To Re-Home Your Pet
Waqar adds, “But pets can be like family. Allergists understand that, which is why we’re very willing to work with you to manage your symptoms in order to keep your beloved pet in your life.”
Allergy testing is the best way to find out if you are allergic to a specific animal or type of dander. Your allergist can use either a blood test or skin test to determine a diagnosis and plan the proper course of treatment.