The Dog Stays Many Families Learn to Live with Pet Allergies

So you have an allergy. What to do?

The best way to curb an allergic reaction, obviously, is to get rid of whatever’s causing it. Eating shellfish gives you hives? Pick a different dinner. Lilacs making your eyes water? Uproot that bush out back.

Unless you’ve got an unusually strong attachment to those flowers or that lobster claw, it’s not a difficult decision. But what happens when the family dog or cat starts to bother one of the kids?

“Bringing pets into the home creates an emotional involvement, so much that the actual allergy considerations are far down the list,” said John O’Neill, an allergist with Keenan, Malladi & O’Neill, which has three offices in Western Mass. “One of the jokes within the allergy community is that, if you tell a patient to get rid of the pet, usually they get rid of the allergy doctor instead.”

In other words, doctors know that, for many families, losing the pet isn’t an option, so the focus turns to how best to control the allergy. Fortunately, there are many ways to do just that.

“If you have a pet living in the house, you need to limit the contact, and the primary area to control is the bedroom,” said O’Neill. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an adult or child; everyone spends a lot of time in the bedroom, so you want to make that an oasis from their allergy, somewhere they can go 24/7. If you can limit the pet to one or two areas of the house, that’s even better, but the bedroom should be a starting point.”

O’Neill said some researchers have suggested that exposure to pets early in life tends to keep children from developing animal allergies later on, “but the evidence for that is unclear so far.

“Certainly, it’s not proving to be the thing to do,” he told The Healthcare News. “At any rate, it’s difficult to set up controlled studies over a period of time to get the data, and the initial enthusiasm for that approach has faded.”

So for those individuals who would rather give up their allergist — and in some cases their sneezy spouse — before shipping off the cat, the key is control, with a healthy dollop of education.

Fine and Dander

For example, O’Neill said, many people are misinformed about exactly what aspect of a cat or dog causes those watery eyes and tight throat.

“A lot of the information out there focuses on the fur, and says that cats and dogs that don’t have hair aren’t a problem — but that’s not really the factor,” he explained. “For the most part, the particles that cause allergic reactions come mostly from the skin dander, which can also be transferred to the saliva. Of course, dogs that have a lot of fur tend to shed a lot, and the stuff gets distributed more widely. That’s where this idea about the hair comes from. Cats are the same; dander is the main problem.”

He noted that a child is more likely to develop an animal allergy if the family has a history of allergies, and if both parents have them, the likelihood is even higher. And often, what seems to be strictly a pet allergy is actually a combination of several environmental sensitivities.

“When pets are outside, they also carry a lot of pollen and mold spores on their fur, and that gets built up inside, too,” he said, so parents of pet-allergic kids would do well to keep their home clean and well-ventilated.

O’Neill knows that many allergy sufferers love their pets so much that it’s easy to fall into denial about the problems the dog or cat is actually causing.

For example, often a family will take a one- or two-week vacation, and when Dad notices his allergies still flaring up away from home, he’ll become convinced he’s sensitive to something other than the pet. The problem is, it can take at least two weeks in a different environment to get the allergy out of one’s system.

Sending the animal away from home for a couple of weeks is an even more futile experiment, O’Neill said. “It takes months to get rid of all the exposure, clean the home, and get all the antigens out of the house,” he explained. “They’ve been circulating in the walls, the carpeting, upholstery, draperies — it’s a major undertaking to get rid of it, so not having any direct exposure for two weeks is not really the way to find out.”

In fact, the best way to determine what environmental allergies are present, and how severe they are, is a simple ‘scratch test,’ in which a variety of specific allergens are introduced to the skin with tiny needle pricks to see which ones cause reactions.

Deal with It

Once a family makes the decision to keep a pet despite allergies in the home, several pharmaceutical options exist to control symptoms. Regular use of control inhalers can be effective, while many people keep Albuterol-spraying rescue inhalers on hand as well, in case of an asthma attack.

“The key to preventing long-term problems is to reduce the inflammatory response, and that takes education,” O’Neill said, referring to both the use of the correct medicine and making changes in one’s environment. “The patient has to become more knowledgeable about how to judge situations.”

Unfortunately, those who live with pet allergies rarely get a total reprieve. “With chronic exposure, symptoms, once triggered, can occur for days after the exposure is removed,” said Dr. James L. Sublett, vice chairman of the indoor allergens committee of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI), writing at babycenter.com. “Even more important, it’s likely the allergen will be transported to the new environment on clothing and other items.”

And in public places, those exposures are likely being introduced by a whole host of people, O’Neill said. “When a kid is in the classroom at school, or at a shopping mall, there’s still a fair amount of exposure.”

Considering how difficult it can be to totally escape the allergens, he continued, families do have to make a serious decision about whether the joys of keeping a pet outweigh the ongoing suffering of the child, or one or both parents. That often depends on the severity of the symptoms, of course.

“If you’re asthmatic, there’s no margin for tolerating the pet,” O’Neill said. “But it’s a question of degree; when is it so severe that you have to say it’s just not worth it?”

It’s a tough question, considering the emotional bonds people form with their beloved pets. After all, a lilac bush never rolled over and asked for belly rubs.

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