Many of us grow up knowing that dogs or cats make our eyes watery, our throats scratchy, our noses runny. But the telltale signs of a pet allergy can show up later in life, too. Or we may not connect the dots until we adopt one of our own. According to Janna Tuck, an allergist in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, about 10 percent of people have a reaction to dogs or cats (and it’s the dander, saliva, or urine in their hair that we react to, not the hair itself). If you suspect you're among them, don't worry — unless your case is extremely severe, there are ways you can coexist with a furry friend. Tackle your symptoms one step at a time to find a strategy that works.
1. First, see an allergist
You may think it's not such a big deal if you wheeze whenever you give your pup a good brushing, or if you break out in a rash after a kitty curls up in your lap. But it's a good idea to see an expert, who can do some tests (either pricking your skin with about 40 immune responsetriggering substances or drawing blood to look for antibodies) to pinpoint exactly what's causing your reaction. It might be something other than an animal. "About 30 percent of patients tested end up with pet allergies," says Tuck. "The rest are allergic to dust mites, pollen, mold, or other allergens." Even if the tests show your suspicions were correct, that doesn't mean you should never get near another little creature: "It just points to a bigger risk of being sensitive or allergic," says New York City immunologist Dean Mitchell. For instance, a person with a high score might react more strongly to one breed than to others, or even to one specific dog.
2. Next, clear the air at home
Tuck estimates that 80 percent of her patients figure out how to live with their allergycausing animals. "It entails reducing the allergen load as much as you can," she says. Some pointers: Make your bedroom off limits, and keep the door shut. (Sorry, no fuzzy foot warmers on the bed.) Frequently change your HVAC air filters, and use a HEPA-equipped vacuum and air purifier, especially in rooms where your dog or cat spends a lot of time. At least once a week, dust furniture and hard surfaces (including walls and ceilings) and launder your bedding; tackle curtains, rugs, slipcovers, and pet beds and toys as often as you can. Brush your fourlegged companion outside with a deshed ding tool weekly, wearing a mask or enlisting help if you need to, and then give her a bath.
3. Last, manage your symptoms
Over the counter medications can take care of mild itchiness and congestion, and help you visit other homes with animals. (Tuck says nasal sprays, like Flonase and Afrin, work especially well, though some shouldn't be used daily.) If that doesn't cut it, your doctor may prescribe immunotherapy, which builds up your tolerance to an allergen by exposing you to it in tiny, controlled increments over time, via doctor administered shots or athome drops. "We aim to get your body to do the right thing instead of having an allergic response," explains Tuck. Both methods have pros and cons. There's a very small chance you could have a severe reaction to the weekly shots — thus the required office visits — but they're effective, Tuck says, and they're covered by insurance. The daily drops or tab lets aren't; they can cost up to $1.50 per dose. But they're convenient, since all you have to do is let them dissolve under your tongue, and they work well, says Mitchell, who's used them to treat patients successfully for the past 16 years.
Whichever treatment you choose, know that it won't go on forever — and will most likely have a happy ending. Your allergist will monitor and adjust your dosage until you're ready to stop, usually after three to five years, though Mitchell has seen results in as few as two. That's a mere blip compared with a lifetime of puppy or kitty love.
Fact or Fiction: Hypoallergenic Pets
The truth about cats and dogs: "No pet is 100 percent hypoallergenic, but there are breeds that allergy sufferers tend to do well with," says Brandi Hunter, vice president of PR for the American Kennel Club. Good canine options include bichons frisés, Brussels griffons, Malteses, poodles, Portuguese water dogs, schnauzers, and soft-coated wheaten terriers. Consider cats with a short, tight coat, like Bengals (above), Cornish and Devon rexes, Oriental shorthairs, and sphynxes. To be safe, visit an animal for several hours to test for potential sensitivities before you bring her home.
Want to learn more? Watch as Martha pairs up with her cat-loving friend, Anduin Havens, to discuss pet hygiene in the home: