How to make your pet allergy a thing of the past
Your new pet has arrived and is just starting to settle into its new home. And then it hits you - you're allergic to this beautiful bundle of joy. What do you do? We examine the options for people allergic to their pets. From the PetPeople magazine archive
Pet allergies are, at best, a nuisance. At worst, they can cause a great deal of pain and discomfort. If you plan to get a pet, you might be frustrated to learn that some dogs can make you itch and cats make you sneeze. But can allergy sufferers live with pets? There is plenty of useful information out there. But, unfortunately, there's also plenty of disagreement. Some studies have shown, for example, that contact with pets in childhood can increase the likelihood of developing allergies in later life; other research suggests that very early exposure may actually protect children from allergies.
Part of the problem is that allergies are so complex: there are many triggers and the symptoms can vary widely in type and severity. Some people may find their symptoms just mildly irritating and easily dealt with by an antihistamine pill, but, for a small number, the symptoms can be extremely distressing, and don't always respond to drug treatments. Allergies can also be unpredictable; the same person, for instance, might find themselves sneezing on contact with one particular cat but experience no problems at all with other cats.
The British Society for Allergy & Clinical Immunology's first piece of advice on managing allergies is simply to avoid the cause - that is to say, don't have a pet in the first place. But for the many pet-lovers who have discovered their allergy only after getting their pet, this advice doesn't help. Indeed, Allergy UK's chief executive, Muriel Simmons, says: 'We never tell people to get rid of their pets. The psychological impact of losing a pet can be worse than learning to live with and manage allergies.'
So are there any other options open to the pet-loving allergy sufferer whose symptoms are merely annoying, rather than dangerous?
Simple steps for big results
Some basic household adjustments will help to reduce the number of pet allergens in the home, although you'll never be able to eliminate them entirely. For starters, keeping pets out of your bedroom and always washing your hands after contact can make a significant difference. However, restricting pets to certain parts of the house is not always effective because allergens can easily travel through the air or be carried on people's shoes and clothes. Cat allergens are particularly 'sticky' in this way.
Although regular vacuuming is important, its immediate effect is to disturb the dust, sending it flying through the air, so the allergy sufferer shouldn't do it. And, if you are expecting a visitor who suffers from allergies, don't make the mistake of vacuuming just before they arrive. Cats and dogs should have their fur brushed regularly, preferably outside and not by the person with the allergy. Washing pets regularly will also significantly cut down on allergens - although it's fair to say that anyone suggesting weekly baths for cats is probably not a cat owner!
Despite all this, the good (or at least, better) news for allergy sufferers is that not all breeds are as allergy-offending as others. For example, Dogs Trust advises that non-shedding, oily-coated, silky or hairless breeds are all more easily tolerated by allergy sufferers. Specific cat breeds that are often quoted as being more suitable for allergy sufferers include the curly-coated Rex and the hairless Sphynx.
It's worth remembering, though, that hair is not the only cause of pet allergies. Allergy UK warns that even breeds described as 'hairless' still carry allergens. Before bringing one of these better-tolerated dogs or cats into your home, it's advisable to spend some time with the breed to see how you react. It can take quite a few weeks for symptoms to develop, so a sneeze-free visit to a breeder is no guarantee that the pet won't cause allergies. The only way to be sure is to spend as long with the potential new pet as is practically possible. This will also give you a valuable insight into the individual animal and the breed in general.
What's best for your pet?
Finally, it's important to ask what's in the pet's best interests. Are they going to be happy if they are shut out of most of the rooms, constantly washed or kept at arm's length? You may also have to face some difficult choices. What will you do if the pet still causes allergies despite being a certain breed or you doing extra grooming and cleaning? Will you be prepared to part with a pet that has become part of the family? Each allergy sufferer is different - and solutions that work well for some people may not be suitable for others. Unless your allergy is very severe, you may come to the conclusion that the pleasure of sharing your home with a pet is worth a bit of discomfort.
By Justine Hankins, pets writer
Originally published in issue 4 of PetPeople, the Petplan customer magazine