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Pet Allergies: Identifying Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

Written by Andrew Le, MD

UpdatedFebruary 29, 2024

Pet allergies affect a significant portion of the global population, with over 10 to 20% of people worldwide being allergic to cats and dogs. These allergies can be particularly aggravating, causing discomfort and health issues for adults and children.

Pet allergies can lead to various symptoms, from sneezing to severe respiratory distress. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, approximately 20% to 30% of individuals with asthma have pet allergies, making it a common trigger for asthma attacks.

In this article, you will learn about common symptoms, treatments, and effective strategies for managing and preventing pet allergies.

🔑 Key Takeaways:

  • Pet allergies can impact a significant portion of the global population, as approximately 20% of people worldwide may experience allergic reactions to cats and dogs.
  • Allergic responses to pets are primarily initiated by proteins in the pet's saliva, urine, or minuscule skin particles known as dander.
  • Symptoms of pet allergies can manifest in various ways, including sneezing, a congested or runny nose, itchy or watery eyes, coughing, wheezing, skin irritations, and, in some cases, even the development of asthma.
  • Pet allergens can accumulate within your home environment, underscoring the importance of taking measures such as incorporating HEPA filters into vacuum cleaners and reducing the presence of fabric items like rugs and curtains to minimize exposure to allergens.
  • Various medications, such as antihistamines, corticosteroid nasal sprays, and immunotherapy through allergy shots, can effectively alleviate the symptoms of pet allergies.
  • Cat owners can explore specialized cat foods designed to diminish allergenic properties, and the use of washable bedding and specific pet accessories can contribute to maintaining an environment free from allergens.
  • If other treatments prove ineffective, consultation with an allergist can help determine whether allergy shots, administered by a healthcare provider, are an option to gradually enhance your immune system's tolerance to allergens over time.

Understanding Pet Allergies

A pet allergy is an allergic reaction that some individuals experience when they come into contact with proteins found in the skin cells, urine, or saliva of animals, particularly domestic pets like cats and dogs.

Allergies aren't just limited to pets with fur. They can also be triggered by other types of animals with hair, feathers, or even scales. This means that individuals can develop an allergic reaction to a wide range of animals, including:

  • Rabbits
  • Guinea pigs
  • Mice
  • Hamsters
  • Birds
  • Horses
  • Reptiles, such as iguanas
  • In addition, allergies to pet bedding (straw, shredded paper, molds) is a possibility

Allergic reactions occur when the immune system erroneously identifies these substances as threats, producing IgE antibodies. While pet dander is the main allergen responsible for triggering symptoms, it can also harbor other airborne allergens like pollen, dust mites, and mold.

According to a study, the highest sensitization rate was for dog allergens at 20.4%, followed by 15.0% for cat allergens and 9.0% for rabbit allergens. It is worth noting that direct exposure to dogs was significantly more common, with 72.0% of participants reporting contact with dogs.

Pet Allergy Symptoms

Pet allergies can cause mild, moderate, or severe symptoms, which vary based on a person's sensitivity and the amount of exposure. Symptoms may appear shortly after contact or have a delayed onset (late phase response) and can include:

Mild

  • Runny or Stuffy Nose: An allergic response can cause nasal congestion, a runny nose, and postnasal drip.
  • Itchy or Watery Eyes: Red, itchy, and watery eyes are classic signs of pet allergies.
  • Skin Rash: Contact with pet allergens can result in a skin rash or hives, especially if you touch the pet and then your face or body.
  • Fatigue: Allergic reactions, even mild ones, can lead to feelings of fatigue or lethargy.

Moderate

  • Sneezing: Allergic reactions often start with sneezing, especially when a person is around a pet or in a pet-occupied space.
  • Coughing: Pet allergens can irritate the throat and lead to a persistent cough.
  • Facial Pressure or Pain: Some people with pet allergies report feeling pressure or pain in their face or around the sinuses.
  • Worsening of Eczema or Dermatitis: Individuals with preexisting skin conditions like eczema may notice worsening symptoms when exposed to pet allergens.

Severe

  • Wheezing and Shortness of Breath: Pet allergies can trigger asthma symptoms in some individuals, leading to wheezing and difficulty breathing.
  • Chest Tightness: Allergies can cause a feeling of tightness in the chest, similar to the sensation experienced during an asthma attack.

Pet Allergy Testing

Pet allergy testing is essential for identifying specific allergens that may trigger allergic reactions in individuals who are sensitive to pets. There are two primary methods for pet allergy testing:

1. Skin test

One of the common ways to test for pet allergies involves a skin test. During this test, your doctor or nurse will apply small quantities of common pet allergens on your skin, usually on your forearm or back, and then prick or scratch the skin to see if there's any reaction. If you are sensitive to any allergens, a red bump or rash will appear on the spot.

The procedure involves observing your skin for any signs of allergic reactions after 15 minutes. For instance, if you are allergic to cats, you may develop a red, itchy bump where the cat extract was pricked into your skin. The test typically produces immediate results and helps determine the specific pet allergen causing the reaction.

It's normal to experience some itching and redness after the skin test. These side effects usually go away within 30 minutes. In rare cases, skin tests may cause more severe reactions. Still, these are usually in people with a history of severe allergies. You must inform your doctor if you have a history of severe allergic reactions.

2. Blood test

Sometimes, a skin test may not be feasible due to a skin condition or potential interactions with certain medications. In such cases, your doctor may suggest a blood test as an alternative.

This test checks your blood for specific allergy-causing antibodies to various common allergens, including different animals. This test can also provide information on how sensitive you are to a particular allergen, helping your doctor formulate an effective treatment plan for you.

Pet Allergy Medications

While pet allergies can be quite bothersome, numerous over-the-counter and prescription medications can help alleviate symptoms. Let’s explore the best allergy medications for pet allergies.

1. Nasal Rinse

Saline nasal rinses are a simple yet effective solution for individuals with allergy symptoms. By flushing out allergens and irritants from the nasal passages, these rinses can provide much-needed relief and help reduce inflammation.

Additionally, saline rinses can help moisturize nasal passages and improve overall hygiene, making them an essential part of any allergy management routine

👍 Recommendation:

Our research and testing have uncovered the top neti pot options for natural relief from sinus congestion, allergies, and cold symptoms. Neti pots use a saline solution to clear nasal passages, providing a safe and effective means to reduce inflammation and improve breathing.

2. Antihistamines

If someone is experiencing sneezing, itchiness in the nose and eyes, or runny nose and nasal stuffiness, antihistamines can provide relief. A doctor may prescribe one of the following medications to alleviate nasal allergy symptoms:

Atihistamine Nasal Sprays

  • Olopatadine® (Sold as Patanase)

Over-the-Counter Antihistamine Tablets

  • Fexofenadine® (Commonly known as Allegra)
  • Loratadine® (Brands include Claritin and Alavert)
  • Cetirizine® (Available as Zyrtec)

Prescription Antihistamine Tablets

  • Levocetirizine® (Sold as Xyzal)
  • Desloratadine® (Commonly known as Clarinex)

3. Decongestants

Decongestants are effective in reducing the swelling of nasal tissues and facilitating breathing through the nose. For allergies, some over-the-counter tablets contain a combination of antihistamines and decongestants.

However, it's important to note that oral decongestants can raise blood pressure and must be avoided by individuals with high blood pressure, glaucoma, or cardiovascular disease.

4. Allergy Shots (Immunotherapy)

If other treatments are ineffective, allergy shots can be a highly successful option. Administered by an allergist, this treatment involves injecting small amounts of allergens into your skin, gradually increasing the dosage over time. It trains your immune system to tolerate the allergen better. Discuss with your allergist if this option is suitable for you.

5. Allergen-Reducing Cat Food

For cat owners, there are cat foods designed to reduce allergens. Purina Pro Plan LiveClear is a product that neutralizes the common cat allergen Fel d1 found in cat saliva.

Best Practices for Preventing Pet Allergies

Preventing pet allergies or minimizing their impact can be crucial for pet owners, especially if they or someone in their household is allergic to animals.

While it's challenging to eliminate pet allergens, several best practices can help mitigate the risk and manage allergies more effectively:

  • Establish an Allergen-Free Bedroom: Designate a pet-free zone, with the bedroom being the most practical choice. You can ensure at least eight hours of allergen-free rest each night by preventing your pet from entering this space. Consider using hypoallergenic bedding and pillows for added protection.
  • Minimize Fabrics: Allergens accumulate in rugs, curtains, and upholstery, so it's advisable to reduce or eliminate them from your home. If you decide to keep some fabrics, ensure regular steam cleaning. Opt for furniture with cotton covers and washable blinds or shades for your windows. You can also cover your furniture with easily washable sheets or blankets.
  • Regularly Vacuum with HEPA Filtration: Use a High-Efficiency Particulate Arresting (HEPA) filter or a disposable electrostatic bag. Other types of bags may release allergens back into the air.
  • Utilize HEPA Air Purifiers: Modern, energy-efficient homes tend to trap allergen-laden air. Install air purifiers with HEPA filters to maintain clean indoor air quality, and consider allowing fresh air to circulate daily.
  • Employ Anti-Allergen Room Sprays: Deactivate allergens with room sprays recommended by your allergist to render them harmless.
  • Maintain a Clean Litter Box: Clean the litter box regularly and opt for low-dust, fragrance-free filler. Clumping litter can be an excellent choice.
  • Dust and Clean Routinely: Wipe down surfaces and walls to reduce allergen buildup in your home.
  • Invest in Washable Pet Accessories: Purchase washable pet bedding and easily cleanable cages to keep your pet's environment allergen-free.

👍 Recommendation:

Vacuum cleaners equipped with HEPA filters are optimal for individuals with allergies since they effectively capture 99.97% of allergenic particles, such as dust mites, pollen, and pet dander. After researching and testing, we identified the top vacuum cleaner options for allergy sufferers. These vacuums have HEPA filters and strong suction power to remove dirt and allergens from your home.

Pet Decontamination Strategies

Decontamination strategies focus on minimizing the spread of allergens, odors, and potential contaminants associated with pets. Here are some effective strategies:

  • Regular Bathing: Bathe your pet at least once a week using a veterinarian-recommended shampoo that won't dry out their skin. Bathing helps remove allergens that accumulate in your pet's fur.
  • Use Dander-Preventing Products: Wipe your pet with a product formulated to prevent dander buildup and flaking. Consult your veterinarian for a safe option for pets that groom themselves.
  • Monitor Dermatitis Symptoms: Be attentive to dermatitis in your pet, as it often leads to increased skin and fur shedding, raising allergen exposure.
  • Frequent Brushing and Combing: Regularly brush or comb your pet, preferably outdoors. If you have a cat, keep them leashed if taken outside, as the ASPCA recommends.

Self-Care Practices

By adopting some self-care practices, you can minimize the impact of pet allergens on your well-being and continue to enjoy the companionship of your pets. Here are some self-care practices to consider:

  • Delegate Household Tasks: Whenever possible, have someone else handle housecleaning, litter box maintenance, and pet grooming. If you must perform these tasks, wear a dust mask for protection.
  • Practice Good Hygiene: Wash your hands after interacting with your pet and before touching your face, as allergens can irritate sensitive areas around your nose and eyes.
  • Designate a "Pet Outfit": Select easily washable clothing as a designated "pet outfit" for playtime or cuddling with your pet to prevent contamination of other clothes.
  • Seek Medical Assistance: Consult a physician, preferably an allergy specialist, to confirm that your pet is the source of your allergies. They can help alleviate your symptoms through medications or immunotherapy, ensuring you and your companion animal enjoy a happy, allergy-controlled life together.

Final Thoughts

Understanding and effectively managing pet allergies are essential for individuals who come into contact with domestic animals like cats and dogs and other potential allergenic pets like rabbits and birds. These allergies can lead to various symptoms, from sneezing to respiratory distress.

Still, it's crucial to recognize that the primary allergen is not the pet's hair but the tiny skin particles, or dander, distributed when pets shed. Treatment options, including antihistamines and allergy shots (immunotherapy), are available to address these allergies.

Additionally, pet owners can employ allergen-reducing strategies within their homes, such as HEPA air purifiers, anti-allergen room sprays, and maintaining clean litter boxes. By applying these measures, individuals can significantly reduce allergy symptoms and enhance their overall well-being, ensuring a more harmonious coexistence with their beloved animal companions.

FAQs On Pet Allergy

What kills pet dander?

Numerous pet products will assert they are the most effective in reducing dander. Still, even everyday items like dishwashing soap or baby shampoo can get the job done.

Is it possible to eliminate pet allergens for good?

When you reduce contact with pet allergens, you can typically anticipate experiencing allergic reactions less frequently or with reduced intensity. Immunotherapy is another treatment option that can help reduce the severity of pet allergies over time.

What happens if you ignore pet allergies?

Ignoring pet allergies can lead to reactions from mild symptoms like sneezing and nasal congestion to more severe issues like life-threatening asthma. The situation can be exacerbated when people are exposed to other allergens they are sensitive to, including pollen, dust mites, cigarette smoke, and mold.

Can you develop a pet allergy over time?

Yes, developing a pet allergy is possible even if you didn't have one initially. This can occur due to increased exposure to pets or other environmental factors.

Are pet allergy tests accurate?

The accuracy of pet allergy tests varies, and it's important to note that no allergy test is perfect. In some cases, even pets with severe itchiness may yield negative results on these tests.