Allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic disease in the U.S. and approximately half of all Americans test positive for at least one of the 10 most common allergens, including cat allergies, according to a profile from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) reports that about 15-30 percent of people with allergies have allergic reactions to cats and dogs. With more than 100 million pets in the United States this leads to high allergy morbidity as people are exposed to animal allergens when visiting friends and family or even in public spaces like schools and offices.
While it will require some extra work, it is possible to live with a pet allergy and continue to keep your animal as a member of the family. Pet allergies are caused by reactions to proteins found in the pet’s skin cells, saliva, or urine and are usually triggered when people are exposed to these proteins. While dog and cat allergies are the most common, any pet can cause allergies. It can be difficult for some people to determine whether the symptoms they are expecting are a common cold or if they are actually allergic to dogs or cats.
Pet allergy symptoms include nasal congestion, runny nose, itchy eyes, sneezing, and sometimes wheezing or difficulty breathing.
Many people will blame pet hair for their allergy symptoms, but in actuality animal hair is not a meaningful allergen source on its own — but other allergens like dust, pollen, and mold can collect in a pet’s fur, so it’s important to regularly bathe pets that allergic people will be exposed to. Baths reduce a dog’s allergen levels by approximately 85 percent, according to a 1999 study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. The researchers compared allergen levels in dog dander after a five-minute bath and found that it was effective in reducing allergens, but the allergens returned to normal in around three days. This suggests that dogs would need to be bathed at least twice a week to mitigate their affect on triggering allergies.
While the best course of pet allergy management is to avoid exposure to the animal, this is not a realistic scenario for people that love their pets and see them as members of the family. Luckily there are medications and treatment options that can help relieve pet allergy symptoms and allow allergy suffers to live with a pet allergy and avoid getting rid of the family pet.
The first step is to determine if a person is actually allergic to the pet. People who suspect they may have a pet allergy can make an appointment with an allergist to be tested. The allergist can identify the allergens that are triggering a person’s symptoms.
If it is determined that the beloved family pet is the source of a person’s allergies, there are multiple steps that can be taken to manage the symptoms and help a person successfully live with a pet allergy.
First, the person should look at changing their environment.
Designate “pet free” spaces in the home. Allergen levels can be reduced in “pet-free” rooms. Allergy sufferers may want to keep pets out of bedrooms, home offices, or other areas where they spend a lot of time. They may also want to teach pets not to go on the furniture and invest in hypoallergenic bedding, which has a barrier that resists allergens such as dander, pollen, dust, and mold. Investing in a good air purifier with a HEPA filter will also help reduce air borne allergens.
Clean more often. Pet owners can reduce the amount of dander in the air by cleaning more regularly. Change air filters and vacuum or shampoo carpets on a frequent basis. Wash bedding often, especially pet beds or any bedding where the pet sleeps. If possible, remove carpets in favor of hardwood floors and replace upholstered furniture with pieces that won’t collect as many allergens.
After making changes in the home environment, a person may want to consider allergy medications and other treatment options, such as:
Medications. Mild allergy symptoms can be treated with over-the-counter medications that relieve symptoms such as itchy eyes, sneezing, and nasal congestion. Check with an allergist to determine if prescription medications may be more beneficial. It is important to note that these medications won’t help asthma-related symptoms.
Allergen immunotherapy. Also known as allergy shots, allergen immunotherapy is a more long-term treatment option that will lessen the symptoms of people with pet allergies. Allergen immunotherapy decreases a person’s sensitivity to allergens and can lead to lasting relief from symptoms. Children as well as adults can receive allergy shots, but they are not recommended for children under 5. Allergy immunotherapy works by exposing the body to minute amounts of an allergen and patients are given gradually increasing doses. This treatment helps the body build up an immunity or tolerance to the allergen. An allergist can determine the right range for an effective maintenance dose.
Rush immunotherapy. Like traditional allergen immunotherapy, in rush immunotherapy a patient receives gradually increasing doses of allergens. However, rush immunotherapy “rushes” the beginning phases of treatment so that these beginning increases are given every few hours rather than every few days or weeks. The process speeds up the initial build up phase of treatment, but patients still need to continue regular allergy injections. Patients progress from receiving allergy shots every two or three weeks to every month. The shots will be given for a period of three to five years as determined by the allergist. There are some conditions that can prevent a patient from receiving rush immunotherapy so a complete evaluation by a physician is required before it can begin.
While pet allergies are best controlled with avoidance, it is not entirely necessary to re-home treasured pets in the case of a pet allergy. Environmental changes, medications and allergen immunotherapy are effective strategies that can help pet allergy sufferers to treat their symptoms and live with a pet allergy while still keeping their best friend around.
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