Paging Dr. Frischer: Pet allergies

My wife grew up with her beloved Mittens the cat…and a box of tissues always within reach.

Some 10% of us are allergic to dogs, and cat allergies affect about twice that many. Some of us also react to birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets, and rodents.

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Why do allergies afflict us? Our immune system produces antibodies to fight off harmful germs. An allergen is a normally harmless substance, but for those with allergies, it triggers the immune system to react. This can lead to symptoms like itching or watery eyes, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, wheezing, asthma and eczema. Interestingly, allergic reactions can change
over time and even disappear. As we age, some of us leave our hay fever, pet allergies and food allergies behind.

It is actually the proteins found in a dog or cat’s dander (tiny flakes of skin), and not their fur itself, which cause allergic reactions. Dander is also found, in smaller quantities, in an animal’s saliva and urine. Dander can be carried on our clothes, circulate in the air, settle in furniture
and bedding, and stay behind on dust particles. In addition, pet hair or fur can collect pollen, mold spores and other outdoor allergens.

What can we do to reduce the symptoms of pet allergies? The best treatment is to avoid contact with cats, dogs, and the spaces they live in. Keep pets out of your home or especially your bedroom, and avoid visiting homes with pets. However, if a pet-free household is not an option:

■ Washing a dog weekly can reduce the dust and dander significantly. Regular human shampoos are not the best choice; a dog’s skin might become dry or irritated, leading to more sloughing of dead skin cells.

■ Keep your home clean. Clean furniture covers, carpets, drapes, and pet bedding often. Keep the pet off of your bed, and consider using air purifiers.

■ Medication for the human can help, including over the counter products like Benadryl, Claritin, Allegra, and Zyrtec.

No pet is 100% hypoallergenic. All dogs produce dander, including hairless ones, but low shedding dogs tend to release less dander. Some of the better dog breeds for allergy sufferers are poodles and many poodle mixes, Portuguese and Spanish water dogs, terriers, bichon frise, Chinese crested, Irish water spaniel, Maltese, standard schnauzer, Italian greyhound, and havanese.

Some of the better cat breeds for allergy sufferers are Siamese, Balinese, Siberian, Bengal, Burmese, colorpoint and Oriental shorthair, Cornish and Devon rex, Javanese, and sphynx.

Pets can be such a wonderful and healthful part of our lives. When seeking a new member of your family, I encourage you to research allergenic potential along with the animal’s size, personality, and other qualities.