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Allergy Alert: Pets and Allergies

During in the fall and early winter time in most 4-season regions of the US, we see an upswing in the number of individuals who suffer with a variety of respiratory and allergy symptoms as a result of greater exposure to pet cats and dogs.Almost 70% of U.S. households have one or more domestic pets, equally divided between cats and dogs, accounting for 100 million pets.

Allergic owners suffer from reactions to their pet's dander, skin flakes, saliva and urine. Hair or fur also can collect pollens, mold spores and other outdoor allergens. Americans love their pets and a recent Japanese study found that one in four patients with pet allergies continue to keep a pet despite allergy- and asthma-related problems.In addition, the study indicated approximately 80 percent of the pet owners surveyed kept their pets inside the home most of the time.

The presence of allergic dander in cats and dogs is not affected by length of hair or fur, and there are no truly "hypoallergenic breeds." According to another study I conducted at The Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, NY, the color of a cat's hair may influence true allergic symptoms in people exposed to the dander. Preliminary data from a self-administered questionnaire of 400 households with pet cats indicated a significantly greater amount of allergy-related symptoms (such as sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes and itchy skin) with exposure to dark cat hair. As expected, the severity of allergy symptoms also was greater in owners who permitted their pet's unlimited access to the bedroom.

Keeping animals outdoors is only a temporary solution since pet dander will eventually accumulate in the house, carried inside on clothing. Even the type of clothing worn can affect the transportation of pet dander.

Taking Control

Keeping pets out of the bedroom can reduce unnecessary suffering since people spend approximately one-third of each day in this room. The presence of cats and dogs on owners' beds contributes greatly to the amount of airborne allergens in the home. Exposure to airborne allergens, which also are spread by air currents, can be reduced by restricting the pet's presence in bedrooms, dens or living rooms with upholstered furniture.

Because pet dander is quite light and buoyant, and floats freely in the indoor air, electrostatic or HEPA air cleaners can be a big help in removing unwanted allergenic particles, especially cat dander. The size of the space determines the size filter necessary, and units are available as tabletop models or can be adapted to central air conditioning systems. Placing a screen or filter over room vents may keep dander from traveling through the heating and air conditioning system. Bear in mind that it may take six months or more to completely rid the home of cat dander particles even after the pet is removed.

There are a variety of other measures that can be utilized to minimize contact with pet allergens:

  • Get allergy tested and learn if you are really allergic to your pets!

  • Avoid hugging and kissing pets if you are truly allergic to them.

  • Remove litter boxes from direct contact with allergy sufferers and place them away from areas of air filtration intake vents in homes with central heating and air-conditioning.

  • Wash hands after handling or touching a pet to help avoid spreading the dander.

  • Consider placing plastic covers on the couch or other upholstered furniture (which may harbor pet allergens) where the pet sleeps or rests.

  • Utilize washable mattress(encasings) covers, pillow covers and bedding in 130 degree hot water

  • Replace carpeting with tile, linoleum and hardwood or other solid-surface flooring.

  • Wash your pet on a weekly basis. Recent studies have indicated that some significant reduction in the amount of pet allergens occurs with weekly washing of dogs and cats. This activity appears to reduce the amount of dander that causes allergy symptoms

  • A non-allergic individual should brush the pet regularly, outside of the home.

  • Speak with your pet's veterinarian to get a well balanced diet for your pet. This change in diet may help to minimize hair loss for the pet and this can reduce dander indoors.

  • Use a double or micro-filter bag and a HEPA filter in the vacuum to augment the filtration of the vacuum cleaner and, in turn, reduce the amount of pet allergen present in carpeting that leaks back into the room air.

  • Finally, for those allergy sufferers who want to keep their pets, look into the administration of allergy shots (immunotherapy) by your allergist/immunologist to reduce the unnecessary suffering associated with having a pet in the home.

Dr. Clifford W. Bassettis an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the Long Island College Hospital and on the faculty of NYU School of Medicine.He is the current vice chair for public education committee of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

No information in this blog is intended as medical advice to any reader or intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition.

Dr. Clifford Bassett is an adult and pediatric allergy specialist, and diplomat of the American Board of Allergy and Immunology. He is the medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of NY.  Bassett is a clinical assistant professor of medicine and on the teaching faculty of NYU School of Medicine and NYU Langone Medical Center and assistant clinical professor of Medicine and Otolaryngology at SUNY LICH. Follow him on Twitter.