Pet allergy is an allergic reaction to proteins found in an animal's skin cells, saliva or urine. Signs of pet allergy include those common to hay fever, such as sneezing and runny nose. Some people may also experience signs of asthma, such as wheezing and difficulty breathing.
Most often, pet allergy is triggered by exposure to the dead flakes of skin (dander) a pet sheds. Any animal with fur can be a source of pet allergy, but pet allergies are most commonly associated with cats, dogs, rodents and horses.
If you have a pet allergy, the best strategy is to avoid or reduce exposure to the animal as much as possible. Medications or other treatments may be necessary to relieve symptoms and manage asthma.
Pet allergy symptoms caused by inflammation of nasal passages include:
If your pet allergy contributes to asthma, you may also experience:
When to see a doctor
If your signs and symptoms are severe — such as severe nasal congestion, difficulty sleeping or wheezing — call your doctor. Seek emergency care if wheezing or shortness of breath rapidly worsens or if you are short of breath with minimal activity.
Allergies occur when your immune system reacts to a foreign substance such as pollen, bee venom or pet dander.
Your immune system produces proteins known as antibodies. These antibodies protect you from unwanted invaders that could make you sick or cause an infection. When you have allergies, your immune system makes antibodies that identify your particular allergen as something harmful, even though it isn't. When you inhale the allergen or come into contact with it, your immune system responds and produces an inflammatory response in your nasal passages or lungs. Prolonged or regular exposure to the allergen can cause the ongoing (chronic) inflammation associated with asthma.
Cats and dogs
Pet saliva can stick to carpets, bedding, furniture and clothing. Dried saliva can become airborne.
A so-called hypoallergenic dog may shed less fur than a shedding dog, but no dog breed is truly hypoallergenic.
Rodents and rabbits
Rabbit allergens are present in dander, hair and saliva.
Pet allergies are common. However, you're more likely to develop a pet allergy if allergies or asthma runs in your family.
Being exposed to pets at an early age may have an impact on your risk of pet allergies. Some studies have found that children who live with a dog or cat in the first year of life may have a lower risk of pet allergies than kids who don't have a pet at that age.
Preparing for your appointment
If you're experiencing runny nose, sneezing, wheezing, shortness of breath or other symptoms that may be related to an allergy, you'll most likely start by seeing your family doctor or general practitioner. Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to prepare for your appointment.
What you can do
Preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. For symptoms that may be related to pet allergy, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
Issues for people with asthma
The impact of a pollen allergy may be noticeable because the allergy is seasonal. For example, you may have more difficulty managing your asthma for a short time during the summer.
Pet allergy, on the other hand, may be due to something to which you're exposed throughout the year if you have a pet. Even if you don't have a pet, you may be exposed to pet allergens in other people's homes or that have been transported on people's clothes at work or school. Therefore, you may not recognize allergy as a factor possibly complicating your asthma when, in fact, it may be a primary cause.
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
Your doctor may suspect pet allergy based on symptoms, an examination of your nose and your answers to his or her questions. He or she may use a lighted instrument to look at the condition of the lining of your nose. If you have a pet allergy, the lining of the nasal passage may be swollen or appear pale or bluish.
Your doctor may suspect a pet allergy, based on your comments. For example, you may have a pet allergy if your symptoms are worse when you have direct contact with your pet or when your pet sleeps in your bedroom or on the bed.
Allergy skin test
In this test, tiny drops of purified allergen extracts — including extracts with animal proteins — are pricked into your skin's surface. This is usually carried out on the forearm, but it may be done on the upper back.
The drops are left on your skin for 15 minutes before your doctor or nurse observes your skin for signs of allergic reactions. If you're allergic to cats, for example, you'll develop a red, itchy bump where the cat extract was pricked into your skin. The most common side effects of these skin tests are itching and redness. These side effects usually go away within 30 minutes.
Treatments and drugs
The first line of treatment for controlling pet allergy is avoiding the allergy-causing animal as much as possible. When you minimize your exposure to pet allergens, you should expect to have allergic reactions that are less often or less severe. However, it's often difficult or impossible to eliminate completely your exposure to animal allergens. Even if you don't have a pet, you may unexpectedly encounter pet allergens transported on other people's clothes.
In addition to avoiding pet allergens, you may need medications to control symptoms.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Avoiding exposure to pets is the best remedy for pet allergy. For many people that doesn't sound like a good option, because family members are often very attached to their pets. Talk to your doctor about whether reducing exposure to your pet, rather than finding a new home for your pet, may be sufficient for managing your pet allergy.
If you find a new home for your pet
If you keep your pet
If you don't have a pet but are considering adopting or buying one, make sure you don't have pet allergies before making the commitment. Spend as much time as possible time at an animal shelter or with a friend's pet first.
Last Updated: 2010-11-17
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