Allergic and wheezing, but still keeping pets
(CNN) -- It started with sinus congestion for Shawna Coronado. Then the splitting migraines came. Coronado soon discovered the furry causes: Harrington and Kalamazoo.
Shawna Coronado endures headaches and congestion to keep her 30-pound pug, Harrington.
Her 30-pound pug and orange tabby scattered dead skin flakes around the house, triggering Coronado's allergic reactions. Her two daughters are also allergic, but their reactions are less severe.
Like the 10 million American pet owners with allergies, the Coronados faced a dilemma: Can human and dog co-exist in the same house?
"We love them," said Coronado about her family's pets. "They're adorable. They're really our babies. They're part of the family. We could never live without them."
Allergies can cause itchy eyes, hives, sneezing, congestion or even asthma. To keep animals around, allergic pet owners get shots, pop antihistamines, squeeze eyedrops, squirt nasal spray, use inhalers or just deal with it. Others try to find a dog that won't trigger the symptoms.
President-elect Barack Obama's family has said his family is seeking a "hypoallergenic dog," because of his eldest daughter, Malia's, allergies.
Cutting pet allergens
Here are steps recommended to reduce allergens in homes with pets:
Unfortunately, there's no such thing.
The belief that certain breeds are hypoallergenic is "a complete misconception," said Dr. Robert Wood, chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "You can't predict by type or breed, or length of hair."
Pet allergies are not caused by dog hair, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology noted in a recent statement.
"The allergen is produced in saliva, urine, dander-- it's not just hair," said Dr. Wanda Phipatanakul, an allergist at Children's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. "Even with a hairless dog, there are still allergens."
For their next pet, the Coronados are considering a poodle. Although poodles, bichon frises and Malteses are often touted as hypoallergenic dogs, these breeds all produce allergens. There hasn't been sufficient research to determine whether certain breeds are more allergy-friendly, said Dr. Clifford Bassett, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at The Long Island College Hospital in New York.
"There is not a lot of research in this area," he said. "There are differences between breeds, but we don't have research to definitively say. They all produce allergens."
The key factors are the animal's size and the volume of hair. The fur can collect pollens, mold spore and allergens and bring them indoors, triggering reactions. Even so, reactions vary widely, because everyone's body is different, doctors say.
Before committing to a pet, make an arrangement to bring the animal to the home for a trial period to see how the person with allergies fares.
"It's always going to be trial and error," Wood said. "Someone might be allergic to one breed, but the main dog allergen that people are allergic to is present in all dogs."
It is also possible for someone to develop dog allergies months or years after bringing the animal home.
If symptoms arise, doctors recommend getting tested to be certain that the allergy is coming from the animal. Allergic reactions could come from other irritants, such as pollen or dust.
A person's allergies can also inexplicably change over time. In the same way that some people outgrow food allergies, there is a rare possibility that pet owners could outgrow their allergies to animals, experts said.
Pills and medications are available to treat the symptoms, but the best remedy, said Philatanakul, is to not have pets.
"There's nothing that can be done except for avoidance," she said. "There's no cure. You're exposing yourself to high levels of allergens in your home. We generally recommend they should not have a pet. It's not recommended."
For many families, having a loving, furry companion outweighs the runny noses, wheezing and water eyes.
Coronado, who is also allergic to mold, dust and yeast, suspects it's not just the dog and cat causing her headaches. After cutting out beer, bread and cheese from her diet, she says she doesn't get as many allergic reactions. But she can't pick up the cat without getting congested. Sometimes Harrington and Kalamazoo trot into the house bringing all sorts of allergens with them and trigger her allergic reactions. Despite the discomforts, the Coronados aren't getting rid of their animals.
"Our lives are so enriched because we have dogs and cats," she said. "You can live in a positive way and live well with the pets or you can suffer every day and think it's miserable. It's really how you look at it. The reason we live with pets is because we live life in a positive way and we work it out."
Her two daughters have cat allergies, but they don't have asthma or breathing difficulties, so Kalamazoo is staying put in their Warrenville, Illinois, home.
"Pets are healing for we humans," Coronado said. "They are for my children. We adore them as part of the family. On a mental health level, children gain something from pets. Children gain a lot from being in nature and being outside. Dogs and cats as pets are part of that experience."
Pets do provide therapeutic value, said Bassett.
"Pets make people feel good," he said. "Pets reduce anxiety, blood pressure. Pets are here to stay."
Cat Asthma: Symptoms and Treatments
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Asthma — a disease of the lower airways — is thought to affect as much as 5% of cats. There is some debate about what causes cat asthma, but most experts think it’s caused by an allergic reaction to something the cat breathes in.
When a cat inhales allergens, the immune system may react and create inflammation. Inflammatory cells may develop in the airways and produce chemicals that create more inflammation.
Pets & Asthma
Many types of animals – both pets you have at home and animals you may encounter outside – have been shown to trigger airway inflammation in people who are allergic. Unfortunately, pets can make asthma worse if you’re allergic to them. Animals that can act as asthma triggers include:
- Gerbils and hamsters
- Mice, rats and guinea pigs
Often, people think that fur or feathers are what trigger symptoms in people with asthma. But in fact, if you have asthma, you could be sensitive to an animal’s:
- Dander (particles of skin)
- Oil secretions
- Urine or feces
If you have an animal in your home and your family doctor or allergist determines that it is a trigger for your symptoms, it is highly recommended that you remove the animal from your home. Removal of a pet from the home is the single most effective environmental avoidance strategy for optimal asthma control.
Up to 50% of children with asthma have symptoms triggered by pets. If you have a pet allergy consider finding a new, loving home for the pet. If you decide to keep the pet even though you are allergic, you may be increasing the severity of your asthma over time. There is no such thing as an allergy-free dog or cat. All furred animals shed dander. Reducing your exposure to pet allergens is the most effective way to help your asthma symptoms.
Managing Asthma With Pets
We realize that for some people removing your pet may not be an option. If you are unable to remove the pet from the home, try these things to minimize exposure:
- If the animal is a cat or a dog, have someone else wash it twice a week.
- Remove carpeting throughout your home, as they trap allergens like fur and dander and can make allergies worse.
- Create no-pet zones: Keep your bedroom off limits to your pets, as well as any carpeted spaces. Try to keep your pets restricted to areas with hardwood floors and keep them off furniture and surfaces that could trap in allergens.
- Clean the house frequently using a vacuum equipped with a high-efficiency particular air (HEPA) filter or a central vacuum system with an outdoor exhaust. (When cleaning avoid scented cleaning supplies as they can act as asthma triggers.)
- Encase your mattress and pillows in special allergen-proof covers. You can learn about our Asthma & Allergy Friendly Certified Products here.
- Use a HEPA air cleaner in the bedroom.
When it comes to living with asthma and pets, it’s also important to follow the asthma basics to help minimize asthma symptoms and the possiblity of an attack.
- Take your controller medication as prescribed by your doctor to keep your asthma under control and decrease your chances of having flare-ups
- Carry your reliever medication with you at all times, especially if you are snuggling with your pets, or are in areas with lots of allergic triggers
- Follow your Asthma Action Plan
- Know what to do in case of an asthma attack
Wheezing - pets
Allergies to pets with fur are common, especially among people who have other allergies or asthma. In the United States, as many as three in 10 people with allergies have allergic reactions to cats and dogs. Cat allergies are about twice as common as dog allergies.
Is There Such a Thing as a Hypoallergenic Pet?
People with dog allergies may be more sensitive to some breeds of dogs than others. Some people may be allergic to all dogs. People may think certain breeds of dogs are “hypoallergenic,” but a truly non-allergic dog or cat does not exist.
What Causes a Pet Allergy?
The job of the immune system is to find foreign substances, such as viruses and bacteria, and get rid of them. Normally, this response protects us from dangerous diseases. People with pet allergies have over-sensitive immune systems. They can react to harmless proteins in the pet's urine, saliva or dander (dead skin cells). The symptoms that result are an allergic reaction. The substances that cause allergic reactions are allergens.
Pet allergens can collect on furniture and other surfaces. The allergens will not lose their strength for a long time. Sometimes the allergens may remain at high levels for several months and cling to walls, furniture, clothing and other surfaces.
Pet hair is not an allergen. It can collect dander, urine and saliva. It also can carry other allergens like dust and pollen.
Cat and dog allergens are everywhere. Pet allergens are even in homes and other places that have never housed pets. This is because people can carry pet allergens on their clothing. Also, allergens can get into the air when an animal is petted or groomed. Pet allergens can also be stirred into the air where the allergens have settled. This can happen during dusting, vacuuming or other household activities. Once airborne, the particles can stay suspended in the air for long periods.
What Are the Symptoms of a Pet Allergy?
Cat and dog allergens can land on the membranes that line the eyes and nose. Reactions include swelling and itching of the membranes, stuffy nose and inflamed eyes. A pet scratch or lick can cause the skin area to become red. It is common to get itchy eyes after petting an animal then touching your eyes.
If allergen levels are low or sensitivity is minor, symptoms may not appear until after several days of contact with the pet.
Many airborne particles are small enough to get into the lungs. For some, this exposure can cause severe breathing problems. Highly sensitive people can begin coughing, wheezing and have shortness of breath within 15 to 30 minutes of inhaling allergens. Sometimes highly sensitive people also get an intense rash on the face, neck and upper chest.
Contact with a cat can trigger a severe asthma episode (asthma attack) in up to three in ten people with asthma. Cat allergies also can lead to chronic asthma.
How Does a Doctor Diagnose a Pet Allergy?
Your doctor will diagnose a pet allergy based on your symptoms, physical examination, medical history and test results. Your doctor can use either a blood test or skin test to aid in the diagnosis. Allergy testing will show if there is allergic sensitization to the animal.
Some people find it hard to believe that they could be allergic to their pets. The doctor may tell you to stay out of the home where the pet lives to see if your symptoms go away. It does not help to remove the dog or cat, because the allergen will remain. Pet allergens still in the home can cause symptoms months after the animal is gone.
What Is the Best Treatment for Pet Allergy?
The best treatment is to avoid contact with cats or dogs or the areas where they live. Keep pets out of your home. If possible, try to avoid visiting homes with pets that you are allergic to. Avoiding cats and dogs may give you enough relief that you will not need medicine.
Keeping the pet outdoors will help, but will not rid the house of pet allergens. Another option is to choose pets that do not have fur or feathers. Fish, snakes or turtles are some choices.
Pet allergy can be a social problem making it difficult to visit friends and relatives who have cats and dogs (and sometimes horses and other animals). This may be especially troublesome for children who cannot participate in activities at the home of friends. Talk to your doctor about possible use of medication before these social exposures and specific measures to take after the exposure.
What If I Want to Keep My Pet?
Removing the pet from the home is often the best treatment. However, if you still want to keep your pet, there may be some strategies to reduce exposure.
- Remove your pet from the bedroom. You spend from one-third to one-half of your time there. Keep the bedroom door closed and clean the bedroom aggressively. You might consider using a HEPA air cleaner in your bedroom.
- Animal allergens are sticky. So you must remove the animal's favorite furniture, remove wall-to-wall carpet and scrub the walls and woodwork. Keep surfaces throughout the home clean and uncluttered. Bare floors and walls are best.
- If you must have carpet, select one with a low pile and steam clean it frequently. Better yet, use throw rugs and wash them in hot water.
- Wear a dust mask to vacuum. Vacuum cleaners stir up allergens that have settled on carpet and make allergies worse. Use a vacuum with a CERTIFIED asthma & allergy friendly® filter if possible.
- Change your clothes after prolonged exposure with an animal.
- Forced-air heating and air-conditioning can spread allergens through the house. Cover bedroom vents with dense filtering material like cheesecloth.
- Adding an air cleaner combined with a CERTIFIED asthma & allergy friendly® filter to central heating and air conditioning can help remove pet allergens from the air. Use an air cleaner at least four hours per day. Another type of air cleaner that has an electrostatic filter will remove particles the size of animal allergens from the air. No air cleaner or filter will remove allergens stuck to surfaces, though.
- Washing the pet every week may reduce airborne allergens, but is of questionable value in reducing a person's symptoms.
- Have someone without a pet allergy brush the pet outside to remove dander as well as clean the litter box or cage.
- Talk to your allergist about options for medicine or immunotherapy.
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