Pet allergies

Are you one of 10% of the population who is allergic to cats or dogs – or both? Although allergies to cats is the most common animal allergy (cat allergies are almost twice as common as allergies to dogs), allergies can happen when contact is made with the hair or feathers of any animal.

So what exactly is it that is causing the allergy? Dogs and cats secrete fluids and shed dander that contain the allergens. They collect on fur and other surfaces. The allergens will not lose their strength for a long time, sometimes for several months. They appear to be sticky and adhere to walls, clothing and other surfaces.

It is not the pet hair that is the allergen but it can collect dander and it also harbours other allergens like dust and pollen.

Common symptoms of a pet allergy are sneezing, itchy watery eyes, a runny nose, itchy face and throat, inflamed eyes and sometimes even a pet’s lick can cause redness and swelling. Many airborne particles are small enough to get into the lungs. When inhaled, the allergens combine with antibodies. This can cause severe breathing problems – coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath – in highly sensitive people within 15 to 30 minutes. Sometimes highly sensitive people also get an intense rash on the face, neck and upper chest. If allergen levels are low or sensitivity is minor, symptoms may not appear until after several days of contact with the pet.

Sensitivity to cats varies greatly, person to person. Cat dander, the minute scales that contain the allergen, is hardy and travels well. Pet dander is even in homes never occupied by these animals because it is carried on people’s clothing. The allergens get in the air with petting, grooming or stirring the air where the allergens have settled. Once airborne, the particles can stay suspended in the air for long periods of time.

If you are unsure if your pet is causing your allergy symptoms a simple test is to remove them from your home for at least two months and clean thoroughly every week. After two months, if you still want pets, bring a pet into the house. Measure the change in your symptoms, then decide if the change in your symptoms is worth keeping the pet.

If you decide to keep a pet, don’t let it come into your bedroom. You spend from one-third to one-half of your time there. Keep the bedroom door closed and clean the bedroom aggressively:

  • Because animal allergens are sticky, you must remove the animal’s favourite furniture, remove wall-to-wall carpet and scrub the walls and woodwork. Keep surfaces throughout the home clean and uncluttered. Bare floors and walls are best.
  • If you must have carpet, select ones with a low pile and steam clean them frequently. Better yet, use throw rugs that can be washed in hot water.
  • Wear a dust mask to vacuum. Vacuum cleaners stir up allergens that have settled on carpet and make allergies worse. Use a vacuum with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter if possible.
  • Forced-air heating and air-conditioning can spread allergens through the house. Cover bedroom vents with dense filtering material like cheesecloth.
  • Adding an air cleaner with a HEPA filter to central heating and air conditioning can help remove pet allergens from the air. The air cleaner should be used at least four hours per day. Another type of air cleaner that has an electrostatic filter will remove particles the size of animal allergens from the air. No air cleaner or filter will remove allergens stuck to surfaces, though.
  • Washing the pet every week may reduce airborne allergens, but is of questionable value in reducing a person’s symptoms.
  • Have someone without a pet allergy brush the pet outside to remove dander as well as clean the litter box or cage.

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