Americans love their pets. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA), 68% of households had some sort of pet. This means that about 85 million households in the United States have been raining cats and dogs. Americans enjoy their pets for a whole host of reasons, including some more recent scientific evidence cited in a Washington Post suggesting that having animal companions can reduce stress and has many other mental health benefits.
With all of these friends comes a lot of, well, fur. Our homes, clothes and lives are full of particulates left behind by Fido and Fluffy. An estimated 10% of people have pet allergies, with twice as many cat allergies as dog allergies. Many loving pet owners soldier through itches, sniffles and rashes to keep their pets. As a dermatologist, I often see patients like this, who want to find better ways to manage their allergies to their pets. If you suspect you or a family member may be suffering from a pet allergy, see a doctor for patch testing, which can help identify the particular allergen causing you discomfort.
To best address your pet allergy, it’s helpful to understand the common causes and signs. Allergies of all types are caused by your immune system, a powerful bodily mechanism that exists to protect you from disease as it attempts to remove or kill harmful foreign substances.
The immune system can cause parts of the body to become inflamed, which causes irritation of the skin, eyes and throat. In the case of pet allergies, your body is reacting strongly to harmless proteins from your pet’s skin, urine or saliva. Contrary to popular belief, pet hair itself actually does not cause allergies, but is a vehicle for all three causes, which is why it can make you feel sick. Pet hair and fur can collect around your home, on clothes or on furniture and exacerbate the effects of pet allergies even when your animal is far away.
The symptoms of pet allergies can range from itchiness of the eyes, nose and skin to more severe breathing problems, rarely resulting in issues related to asthma. Though these symptoms are not typically life-threatening, they can be very uncomfortable and can interfere with day-to-day activities, which makes pet allergies a hot topic among pet owners and doctors alike.
Children with allergies to pets are also at a higher risk for developing allergy-induced eczema, which is painful inflammation of the skin in response to an irritant. Adults who already have eczema are also at risk for increased inflammation if they are allergic to pets and are exposed.
Many Americans choose to live with their pet allergies to keep their furry companions at home. For these people, there are a number of medical and lifestyle steps that can be taken to reduce the discomfort associated with allergies, so you can spend less time sneezing and more time snuggling with your furry friend. For some, over the counter antihistamines like Benadryl do the trick to calm the uncomfortable inflammatory symptoms. For eczema, I also recommend using a hydrocortisone cream to soothe the swelling, redness and discomfort.
Some pet owners use an allergy management strategy that includes immunotherapy, or the use of allergy shots. In this treatment, you receive a shot about once a week for up to seven months, and then you slow the frequency of the shots until you have a desired result. The overall process can range from a few months to a few years. The use of immunotherapy aims to train your immune system to tolerate amounts of the allergen without causing symptoms. Allergy shots are one viable solution for people who have interest in a more permanent strategy for reducing allergy symptoms.
The effects of pet allergy can also be mitigated by adjusting your lifestyle to avoid contact with irritants from your pet. This can be as simple as preventing your pet from entering your bedroom, which can reduce discomfort and trouble breathing when you sleep, or using an air purifier to reduce the allergens circulating around your home.
The act of stroking or petting a kitten or pup has been reported to release hormones that can tame stress and increase satisfaction and happiness, so I understand why pet owners are willing to go to great lengths to keep their pets around. I recommend a combination of lifestyle choices, like limiting your pet’s entry into certain rooms and medicines to help. For itchy skin, eczema treatments should help you get back to playing fetch and, if over the counter treatments are unable to soothe your skin, visit your dermatologist, as the allergy could require a more serious solution.
Suzanne Friedler, M.D. is a board-certified dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology PC. For more, visit advanceddermatologypc.com.