Help! I'm Allergic to My Pet

Woman blowing nose
All dogs and cats produce saliva, urine and dander that carry the allergens causing sufferers to sniffle, sneeze and wheeze.

When Kathryn Primm’s allergist broke the news to her that she was allergic to dogs, cats and horses, she says she started to cry. “What am I going to do?” she asked.

“Well," the allergist replied,"you’re my veterinarian, so we’re going to figure this out."

That’s right. My colleague, Dr. Primm, is one of approximately 36 percent of veterinary professionals — veterinarians and staff — who are allergic to their patients. And many of our clients are in the same fix: allergic to the animals they love.

Coping With Pet Allergies

Some 50 million people in the United States suffer from nasal allergies, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Allergies affect up to 30 percent of adults and 40 percent of children. Of people with allergies, approximately 30 percent are allergic to pets. Whether they’re furry or hairless, wirecoated or single-coated, all dogs and cats produce saliva, urine and dander (dead skin flakes) that carry the allergens causing sufferers to sniffle, sneeze and wheeze. Allergies to cats are about twice as common as allergies to dogs.

Take Shannon Gillespie of Long Beach, California. She’s allergic to cats, horses and guinea pigs. Fortunately, she doesn’t react to dogs, which is good since she has four of them.

“I get allergy shots to be around other people with horses and cats, and I avoid guinea pigs since that’s easy,” she says. “But I have to make sure I don’t touch a cat. I’m on a ton of meds for asthma, but I sometimes take Benadryl, too.”

Fortunately for Shannon and others like her, the solution is not automatically to get rid of their pets. Allergists used to make that recommendation in almost every case, but many — including Dr. Primm's allergist — are pet lovers themselves and are sympathetic to their patients' situations. They’ve learned to help owners make accommodations that allow allergic pet owners to live reasonably comfortably with their dogs and cats.

Keep the Pets, Lose the Itch

Dr. Primm's strategies include showering and washing her hair immediately after coming home from the clinic and changing into fresh clothing that isn’t contaminated with dander. Antihistamines, sinus rinses and nasal sprays help, too.

She has also made changes at home to keep certain spaces allergen-free. Her dog and cat have a separate sleeping area, away from her bedroom. “That was where the doctor and I compromised,” she says. “He said, ‘You just can’t sleep with them; you’ll be sick all the time.’”

Environmental management is one strategy, but it's not the only option. Allergy shots can help, too. They don’t actually desensitize people to pet allergens, but they can help the body become more tolerant of them.

“Allergies are all the way down at the genetic level," says Oren P. Schaefer, M.D., an allergist at Mass Lung & Allergy in Worcester, Massachusetts Allergy shots, he explains, don't cure the allergy — instead, they "make you immune-tolerant, so the cat that comes by you doesn’t stir up as much immunologic trouble.”

How well allergy shots work may depend on your level of exposure to pets. Some people respond well to them and are able to comfortably spend time with their animals. Dr. Primm says hyposensitization injections helped her a great deal at first, but because of her overwhelming exposure to animals, they eventually were no longer effective. Nonetheless, for moderate to severe allergies, it’s always a good idea to talk to a board-certified allergist about the possible benefits of allergy shots.


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