Pet allergies are nothing to sneeze at—an estimated 10% of the U.S. population and up to 30% of people with asthma suffer from them. Despite the less-than-desirable consequences, many still yearn for creature companionship. "I'm very pro-pet," says Clifford Bassett, MD, allergist and medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York. "But if you have a pet and allergies, you need to look for a long-term solution to create a comfortable and safe experience." Before making any significant changes to your lifestyle or home, Dr. Bassett recommends being diagnosed—usually by way of a skin test or sometimes with a blood test called RAST—at an allergist's office. That way you'll be sure it's the cat that's causing your symptoms and not the dust mites in your bed. Read on to learn what triggers pet allergies and the steps you can take to reduce them.Cause of the Problem
The kind of allergen each person reacts to varies: The culprit may be a protein found in an animal's dander (skin flakes), saliva or urine, or it may be an outdoor allergen, like pollen or mold spores, stuck to the fur. So a person who gets stuffy at the sight of a cat may be fine with dogs, and vice versa. Feline allergies are about twice as common as the canine variety.
Allergies can also get better or worse over time, says Andy Nish, MD, allergist and president of the Allergy and Asthma Care Center in Gainesville, Georgia. Just because you didn't have symptoms when you first adopted your pet doesn't mean you're allergy-free today.Sneeze-Proof Your Place
If you love your pet but not the sneezes and itchy, watery eyes that come with him, follow these steps to minimize symptoms:
The Obamas chose Bo, the Portuguese Water Dog they adopted, because Malia, 13, has allergies, and the breed is known for being hypoallergenic—as are Poodles, Irish Water Spaniels, Chinese Crested, Maltese, Bichon Frise, Schnauzers, several Terrier breeds, Hungarian Pulis and Xoloitzcuintli. They have non-shedding coats and therefore don't generate as much dander, according to the American Kennel Club. However, there's no scientific proof that hypoallergenic pets actually exist, because even a tress-less dog or cat produces allergens, says Dr. Clifford Bassett. Breeds can affect allergic people differently too, so while Malia may have no problems with Bo, Portuguese Water Dogs may not be the best option for you. If you're thinking of getting a dog, Dr. Bassett suggests spending time with a pet at a friend's house or even in your home for a few weeks, if possible, to determine how you might react to that breed.
Originally published in the July 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.
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