Man's best friend doesn't always seem so friendly to those with pet allergies. The allergy trigger is a protein in the skin and saliva of cats and dogs, not their hair. Despite popular opinion, allergic reactions are not determined by an animal's breed or length of hair. Hairless or short-haired pets are just as likely to cause an allergic response as long-haired breeds.
When the pet grooms itself the offending protein allergen attaches to animal hair. It is also a part of dander (skin flakes, an animal's "dandruff"), which can be shed with or without hair. Cat and dog hair and dander can stick to carpeting, furniture and other objects with which the animal comes in contact. Dried dander and loosened hair coated with dander can become airborne. Research shows that cat allergen even sticks to walls, clothing and other surfaces. Both cat and dog dander are present on sofa surfaces in almost every home, regardless of whether a pet lives there. People with pet allergies may have symptoms in cat-free or dog-free homes, because dander can be carried in on visitors' clothing and because it can adhere to the walls and ceilings in homes that previously housed a cat. Pet allergy is not limited to cats and dogs. Some people get a reaction from an allergen found in the urine and hair of guinea pigs and gerbils.
If you are allergic to pets, the only sure way to prevent reactions is to find a new home for the animal. If that's not acceptable, here are some ways that might reduce your exposure, although some of these strategies have not been proven to be effective:
Send them outdoors…
When pets are outdoors, their dander is less likely to cause danger to you. Do as much maintenance as you can on your own home to remove existing dander and to prevent accumulation of dander that is brought inside on your clothes. It's best to remove carpet and upholstery where pet hair collects, especially cat hair. As with dust mite allergies, bare wood or sheet-goods flooring is best. Area rugs are fine if they can be laundered.
Limiting the number of rooms in which a household pet is permitted (for example, keeping pets out of the bedroom but permitting them in the kitchen) has not been shown to noticeably reduce allergy symptoms.
…And bring the outdoors inside
Even if you keep your pets outdoors, and especially if you don't, try to improve ventilation by opening windows and air intake vents. These steps will improve indoor circulation and might help keep pet dander from accumulating.
Get a new vacuum
A vacuum cleaner with a double-thickness bag and a good filter is the best kind to prevent indoor allergens from recirculating into the air after they are vacuumed. When you are vacuuming, wear a face mask. In addition to a good vacuum cleaner, HEPA air filters might be helpful for those allergic to animal dander, dust mites, mold, and cockroaches . There is controversy about whether the high cost of these filters is worth the benefit they may provide. When vacuuming, wear a face mask.
Bathe your pet
To keep pet dander from accumulating on your dog's or cat's body, you can consider washing your pet (with soap and water) while wearing a face mask every two to three days. Regular washing for dogs twice a week may be helpful. Less frequent washing will not eliminate enough of the dander to be effective. Pet bathing is not as helpful as you might imagine--in one study of cat washing, the concentration of cat allergen particles within household air was back to usual levels within 24 hours of washing the household cat.
Keep kitty groomed
To keep pet dander from accumulating on your cat’s body, wash your cat (with soap and water) while wearing a face mask every two to three days. Regular washing also is advised for dogs twice a week. Less frequent washing will not eliminate enough of the dander to be effective.
Watch for other allergens
If you are allergic to any airborne substance, including animal dander, it's also important to avoid other irritants like cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke, insect sprays, dust and tar fumes. Even if you're not allergic to those substances, exposure to them could aggravate your pet allergies.
Is there such a thing as non-allergenic cat?
Genetic differences appear to have made one breed of cat less likely to aggravate allergies. This type of cat produces unusually low levels of a specific protein (called Fel d 1), a major trigger for cat allergy. This cat variety (“Allerca”) has been commercially bred. The animals are available as pets but they are very expensive—approximately $4,000 per cat.
The best way to avoid pet allergies is obvious: Find a new home for the pet. But that's often easier said than done.
There's no question about the physical benefits that results from ridding the household of an allergy-causing pet. But losing the family pet can be emotionally devastating. Unfortunately, keeping the pet out of bedrooms isn't enough, since dander and saliva are airborne throughout the house and also can hitch a ride on clothing. Here's how to ease the pain of parting:
Honesty is the best policy
When telling your children of the need to remove the pet, don't blame the animal's behavior, or pretend the pet will be happier elsewhere. State the reason as it is: "We know that Fluffy is making your allergies worse, and we have to find another good home for her so you can feel better." Stress that you are making the decision, as a parent whose responsibility is to make sure your children are safe. Avoid using terms like "getting rid of" and other callous remarks.
Let children express their feelings
An allergic child may blame himself or herself for causing the problem, or be angry with you for deciding to remove the animal. Siblings also may cast blame, either at you or their allergic brother or sister or both. Don't allow scapegoating, but do allow each member of the family to share his or her views, without blame.
Be sensitive to the grieving process
Losing a pet, even by choice, will likely affect all family members. It may help to talk about the good times shared with the pet, and how those memories can be treasured forever.
Make finding your pet's new digs a family affair
Have everyone in the family participate in locating a new home for the animal. It's helpful to have children be in charge of making a list of the pet's special needs, such as a big yard for running or a family with children. Then, the entire family should brainstorm suggestions on where and how to find a new home that meets the criteria. A good place to start is at your veterinarian's office.
Let the kids give their OK
Once you've found a home for your pet, let your kids check it out and give it their stamp of approval. You may want to first check with your doctor to make sure this won't set off allergies, but it can help bring closure to your child's worries. Of course, if your children don't approve of what appears to be a good replacement residence, it could be their fear of losing their animal. If that's the case, sit down with them and ask them to articulate exactly what is wrong with the new home.