Pet-induced allergies and asthma

Pet-induced allergies and asthma

Asthma Centre

Pet-induced allergies and asthma

Animals are such agreeable friends; every home needs one! True, except if someone in the home suffers from pet-induced allergies or asthma. Here’s how to handle this dilemma…

Pet allergies
Approximately 10% of the general population is allergic to animals but at least 30% of people with asthma also have pet allergies that may trigger severe asthma attacks. Also, one out of three asthma sufferers are especially susceptible to cat allergies. This can cause quite a dilemma for pet owners who now have to decide whether to keep or let go of their beloved pets. Knowing how and why pet-induced allergies and asthma occur and how to avoid the triggers that cause these reactions will, hopefully, help pet owners manage this dilemma.

How and why pet allergies occur
Our immune systems are geared to finding and eliminating foreign substances, such as viruses and bacteria, in order to protect us from dangerous diseases. Unfortunately, people with pet allergies have super-sensitive immune systems that react aggressively to harmless proteins, called allergens, in pet dander (shed upper layer of skin), saliva and urine. This reaction triggers the typical allergy attack that provokes the body into producing histamine, a substance that causes swelling and irritates the upper airways, eyes, nose and skin.

Because the allergens that trigger allergy and asthma attacks are sticky, they cling to walls and other surfaces where animals sleep, eat and play, the clothing of pet owners, and the fur of the animal involved. These allergens can stay potent for months and, being lightweight when airborne, can also stay in the air for prolonged times. When they settle on the membranes in the eyes and nose they cause stuffy noses, inflamed eyes, rashes and itching and severe breathing problems when they get into the lungs. People with allergy-induced asthma are more likely to have asthma attacks triggered by airborne allergens such as pet saliva and urine derived allergens than by any other allergens.

Stay or send away?
Based on the above-mentioned, the only solution seems to be avoidance by getting rid of the animals that cause the reactions. Although this may be the way to go, especially if the person affected reacts very badly to the triggers, there are other options available.

First and foremost, pet owners need to try and avoid the allergens that trigger attacks. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Reduce exposure to dander – that is the shed upper layer of skin that the hair/fur is attached to – by washing the pet at least twice a week and by regularly rubbing it down with a damp, microfiber cloth. Remember, it is not necessarily the animal’s hair that carries the allergens, but dried saliva and other allergens may be deposited on the hair/fur of the animal when it licks or clean itself or is licked by other animals. Have male cats and dogs neutered to lower allergen production.
  • Wash your hands after touching the animal and avoid rubbing your eyes and nose when around pets. Teach young children this rule from day one. 
  • Never allow an animal to lick you in the face and be especially careful with young children and babies that crawl around on the floor and are bound to receive a friendly lick or two. This also applies to hugging and kissing animals.
  • Keep pets out of doors or confined to one room in the house. Do not allow pets in bedrooms especially if the occupant has other allergies or asthma. Allergens love to settle on bedding, carpets and curtains and your pet may happily oblige by bringing in even more from outside. Regularly wash all bedding in very hot water. 
  • Make your home as allergen-free as possible. High levels of pet allergen, especially cat allergens, have been found in rooms and homes where pets lived; even months after they left. Start by installing air filters such as the HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter to air ducts and ventilation grids. Hard-surfaced flooring and blinds instead of curtains will also help. Invest in electrostatic cloths that attract and hold pet hair and dander when cleaning floors and walls.
  • Keep the areas where pets sleep clean by washing bedding regularly. If pets such as birds and reptiles are kept in cages, clean regularly, not inside but outside, and wear a face mask. Don’t allow young children to do this unless you have trained them and they know exactly what to do.
  • Choose a pet that offers reduced allergen exposure. Unfortunately there is no scientific evidence to suggest that certain dogs and cats are hypoallergenic. However, some dogs that lack a second or winter coat or have hair/fur that needs a lot of washing and grooming (that helps wash away dander) may be a better choice. These include dogs such as terriers, schnauzers, poodles, standard, Maltese and Bichon frise that have tightly curled hair which makes it harder for dander to be shed and the Portuguese water dog with its robust coat of hair. As far as cats are concerned the seemingly hairless Sphinx, Siberian and Russian blue cats and the Devon Rex that hase less fur than some other breeds have been mentioned as better choices. 
  • Other pets that have been recommended for households with allergy/asthma sufferers include goldfish, the Syrian hamster and the Leopard gecko.

Other strategies
When pets can’t be removed and all the above-mentioned steps have been taken, what remains to be done is to consult an allergy specialist and inquire about immunotherapy treatment. This is a series of injections containing specific allergens in very small doses and over a long period of time to induce tolerance to the pet allergen that triggers your allergies/asthma. Of similar importance is that people with asthma keep on taking their regular asthma medication as stipulated in their asthma control and management plan and not use their emergency short-acting beta agonist inhaler more than twice a week if possible.

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