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Living with an animal and an allergy

There can be health advantages to having a pet. Some studies suggest that pet owners are less lonely, less stressed and may even be in better cardiac health than their non-pet-owning friends.

What's more, pets can make good companions and are just plain fun to have around.

But some pet owners pay a price: Allergies.

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, millions of people with pets have an allergy to them.

Dander and allergies

Pets that can cause allergies include dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, rabbits, mice, gerbils, rats and guinea pigs.

The problem, strictly speaking, isn't with an animals' hair, fur or feathers. It's caused by a protein present on pet dander—dead, sloughed-off skin—and in pet saliva and urine.

The protein is harmless for most people. Some, though, have hypersensitive immune systems that try to ward off the protein as if it were a dangerous virus or bacteria.

The resulting reaction can prompt a variety of allergy symptoms such as:

  • Sneezing or a stuffy or runny nose.
  • Itchy, inflamed or watery eyes.
  • Coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath.
  • Hives or a rash.

Controlling dander

The best way to control pet allergy symptoms is to avoid allergy-causing animals, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. But for people who are unwilling to part with their pets, the next best strategy is to avoid pet dander.

It's not easy. Dander can cause symptoms for months and is hard to remove. It clings to clothes, so it's easily brought inside even if pets are kept outdoors. Once inside, it sticks to walls, floors and furniture.

Dander is also lightweight, so it can float throughout the house, circulating on indoor air currents stirred up by heating, air conditioning and vacuuming.

Despite its persistence, there are several things you can do to help control and avoid pet dander.

Make bedrooms dander-free. People typically spend a lot of time in their bedrooms, so making these rooms as dander-free as possible can be beneficial.

Keep pets off the bed, out of the bedroom and the bedroom door closed. To help prevent dander from wafting in through heating and cooling vents, cover them with a dense filtering material like cheesecloth.

Overall, keep the room—particularly bedding—very clean.

Eliminate dander-friendly surfaces. Floors, upholstered furniture and curtains are among the places in your home that collect dander. Consider the following tips for controlling dander in these areas:

  • Think about removing carpets in favor of bare wood, tile or linoleum. If you do opt for carpet, use one with a low pile and steam clean it regularly.
  • Consider keeping pets out of the living room, den or other areas with upholstered furniture. Cover furniture with plastic or with fabric that can be removed and washed.
  • Remove curtains if possible. If not, clean them with a product that neutralizes dander.

Clean the air. Use a heating and air conditioning system that features a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter and keep the litter box away from vents. Your vacuum cleaner should also be equipped with a HEPA filter.

Ask for help. Have someone who isn't allergic perform tasks such as brushing (this should be done outdoors) and cleaning litter boxes and cages.

Keep pets clean and healthy. Have your pet washed every week, preferably with an allergen-neutralizing shampoo. Wash your pet's bedding regularly as well. If your pet rides in the car, use removable, washable seat covers.

Also, ask your veterinarian about your pet’s diet. A well-balanced diet may help reduce dander.

Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands after touching your pet.

Consider the alternatives. If you don't already have a pet but would like one that won't cause allergies, consider animals without fur or feathers—fish, turtles or snakes, for example.

If these steps don't help, talk to your doctor. There are medical treatments, including allergy shots, that may help control pet allergies.

reviewed 5/2/2019

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