Minimising allergic reactions to pets

Advice from CNN Health

Experts unanimously agree that the best way to reduce allergens is to remove pets from the home. Even so, up to 75% of allergic pet owners decide not to give away their pets even after an allergy is confirmed - though it depends on how severe their symptoms are and, often, whether children are allergic.

If families aren't willing to remove a pet, the next best thing is to isolate the pet from allergic family members as much as possible, by keeping it outdoors, or at least out of bedrooms. If you live in a multi-storey home, restricting the pet to the ground floor is a good strategy.

Dander is so pervasive that it can be found even in homes that have never had pets, as well as in schools, shopping malls, and other public places - so you will never get rid of it. Limiting the pet's roaming area will certainly help, as will plastic mattress covers help keep dander out of beds, and room air cleaners equipped with high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to remove dander from the air. (Because cat and dog dander are light and fluffy allergens and float for hours in the air HEPA filters really can remove some of that dander from the air.)

Replacing carpet with tile or wood floors will also help as carpets tend to trap dander. However frequent vacuuming may actually be counterproductive as vacuuming tends to stir up allergens without necessarily removing them, and can actually increase the number of airborne allergens, even when newer vacuums containing HEPA filters are used.

Further suggestions:

• Wear a face mask when cleaning.
• Keep your pet out of the bedroom, and out of clothes cupboards in particular.
• Some research suggests bathing your pet can help. In a 1999 study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, washing dogs with allergen-reducing shampoo for five minutes cut the dogs' allergen levels by about 85% although this reduced-allergen state only lasted three days...

Deciding not to give up a pet may have some consequences on sufferers. For starters they will almost always need more medication to control their symptoms which could include taking - or upping the dosage of - oral antihistamines and intranasal steroids. People with asthma may require higher doses of inhaled corticosteroids or the addition of other medicines, such as leukotriene inhibitors. Alternatively patients may decide to get allergy shots that boost immunity to the allergen, a strategy that can be effective.

The cost of these additional medications can add up, and some carry a potential risk of long-term side effects. Though allergy and asthma medications are relatively safe compared to some other drugs, when taken consistently in high doses, some can cause bone density loss, glaucoma and other problems.

Impact on allergies

The impact of pet allergens on allergies and asthma isn't entirely clear. Some research in recent years has suggested that having pets around young children may actually protect children from allergies later in life (because the children develop a tolerance to the allergen, in effect), but the validity of this research has been questioned. Significantly, the same effect does not apply to children who already have pet allergies. Studies have shown that pet allergies - especially cat allergies - can lead some children to develop asthma if they are exposed to pets, and can make asthma worse later in life.

The death or departure of a pet can lead to dramatic improvements in symptoms - so, you're thinking about getting a pet and you suspect you might have allergies, get tested before you bring your new pet home!

More at

First published in 2009

Back to top