What is pet allergy?
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 and dogs.
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.
How common is pet allergy?
Allergies to pets with fur are common, especially among people who have other allergies or asthma. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of pet allergy?
The common symptoms of pet allergy are:
- Runny nose
- Itchy, red or watery eyes
- Nasal congestion
- Itchy nose, roof of mouth or throat
- Postnasal drip
- Facial pressure and pain
- Frequent awakening
- Swollen, blue-colored skin under your eyes
- In a child, frequent upward rubbing of the nose
If your pet allergy contributes to asthma, you may also experience:
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest tightness or pain
- Audible whistling or wheezing sound when exhaling
- Trouble sleeping caused by shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing
Some people with pet allergy may also experience skin symptoms, a pattern known as allergic dermatitis. This type of dermatitis is an immune system reaction that causes skin inflammation. Direct contact with an allergy-causing pet may trigger allergic dermatitis, causing signs and symptoms, such as:
- Raised, red patches of skin (hives)
- Itchy skin
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
Some signs and symptoms of pet allergy, such as a runny nose or sneezing, are similar to those of the common cold. Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether you have a cold or an allergy. If symptoms persist for more than two weeks, you might have an allergy.
If your signs and symptoms are severe — with nasal passages feeling completely blocked and 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.
What causes pet allergy?
Allergies occur when your immune system reacts to a foreign substance such as pollen, mold 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) airway inflammation associated with asthma.
Cats and dogs
Allergens from cats and dogs are found in skin cells the animals shed (dander), as well as in their saliva, urine and sweat and on their fur. Dander is a particular problem because it is very small and can remain airborne for long periods of time with the slightest bit of air circulation. It also collects easily in upholstered furniture and sticks to your clothes.
Pet saliva can stick to carpets, bedding, furniture and clothing. Dried saliva can become airborne.
So-called hypoallergenic cats and dogs may shed less fur than shedding types, but no breed is truly hypoallergenic.
Rodents and rabbits
Rodent pets include mice, gerbils, hamsters and guinea pigs. Allergens from rodents are usually present in hair, dander, saliva and urine. Dust from litter or sawdust in the bottom of cages may contribute to airborne allergens from rodents.
Rabbit allergens are present in dander, hair and saliva.
Pet allergy is rarely caused by animals that don’t have fur, such as fish and reptiles.
What increases my risk for pet allergy?
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 help you avoid pet allergies. Some studies have found that children who live with a dog in the first year of life may have better resistance to upper respiratory infections during childhood than kids who don’t have a dog at that age.
Diagnosis & treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is pet allergy diagnosed?
Your doctor may suspect a 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.
Allergy skin test
Your doctor may suggest an allergy skin test to determine exactly what you’re allergic to. You may be referred to an allergy specialist (allergist) for this test.
In this test, tiny amounts 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.
Your doctor or nurse observes your skin for signs of allergic reactions after 15 minutes. 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.
In some cases, a skin test can’t be performed because of the presence of a skin condition or because of interactions with certain medications. As an alternative, your doctor may order a blood test that screens your blood for specific allergy-causing antibodies to various common allergens, including various animals. This test may also indicate how sensitive you are to an allergen.
How is pet allergy treated?
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 generally should expect to have allergic reactions that are less often or less severe.
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.
Your doctor may direct you to take one of the following medications to improve nasal allergy symptoms:
- Antihistamines reduce the production of an immune system chemical that is active in an allergic reaction, and they help relieve itching, sneezing and runny nose. Prescription antihistamines taken as a nasal spray include azelastine (Astelin, Astepro) and olopatadine (Patanase). Over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamine tablets include fexofenadine (Allegra Allergy), loratadine (Claritin, Alavert) and cetirizine (Zyrtec Allergy); OTC antihistamine syrups are available for children. Prescription antihistamine tablets, such as levocetirizine (Xyzal) and desloratadine (Clarinex), are other options.
- Corticosteroids delivered as a nasal spray can reduce inflammation and control symptoms of hay fever. These drugs include (Flonase Allergy Relief), mometasone furoate (Nasonex), triamcinolone (Nasacort Allergy 24-Hour) and ciclesonide (Omnaris). Nasal corticosteroids provide a low dose of the drug and have a much lower risk of side effects than do oral corticosteroids.
- Decongestants can help shrink swollen tissues in your nasal passages and make it easier to breathe through your nose. Some over-the-counter allergy tablets combine an antihistamine with a decongestant. Oral decongestants can increase blood pressure and generally shouldn’t be taken if you have high blood pressure, glaucoma or cardiovascular disease. Talk to your doctor about whether you can safely take a decongestant. Over-the-counter decongestants taken as a nasal spray may briefly reduce allergy symptoms. If you use a decongestant spray for more than three days in a row, it can contribute to congestion.
- Leukotriene modifiers block the action of certain immune system chemicals. Your doctor may prescribe montelukast (Singulair), a prescription tablet, if corticosteroid nasal sprays or antihistamines are not good options for you. Possible side effects of montelukast include upper respiratory infection, headache and fever. Less common side effects include behavior or mood changes, such as anxiousness or depression.
- You can “train” your immune system not to be sensitive to an allergen. This is done through a series of allergy shots called immunotherapy. One to two weekly shots expose you to very small doses of the allergen, in this case, the animal protein that causes an allergic reaction. The dose is gradually increased, usually during a four- to six-month period. Maintenance shots are needed every four weeks for three to five years. Immunotherapy is usually used when other simple treatments aren’t satisfactory.
- Nasal irrigation. You can use a neti pot or a specially designed squeeze bottle to flush thickened mucus and irritants from your sinuses with a prepared saltwater (saline) rinse. If you’re preparing the saline solution yourself, use water that’s contaminant-free — distilled, sterile, previously boiled and cooled, or filtered with a filter that has an absolute pore size of 1 micron or smaller. Be sure to rinse the irrigation device after each use with contaminant-free water, and leave open to air-dry.
Lifestyle changes & home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage pet allergy?
Removing the pet from the home is often the best treatment. However, if you still want to keep your pet, there may be some strategies to reduce exposure.
- Remove your pet from the bedroom. You spend from one-third to one-half of your time there. Keep the bedroom door closed and clean the bedroom aggressively. You might consider using a HEPA air cleaner in your bedroom.
- Animal allergens are sticky. So you must remove the animal’s favorite 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 one with a low pile and steam clean it frequently. Better yet, use throw rugs and wash them 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.
- Change your clothes after prolonged exposure with an animal.
- 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 combined with a filter to central heating and air conditioning can help remove pet allergens from the air. Use an air cleaner 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.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Pet Allergy: Are You Allergic to Dogs or Cats? http://www.aafa.org/page/pet-dog-cat-allergies.aspx. Accessed November 29, 2017.
Pet allergy. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pet-allergy/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20352198. Accessed November 29, 2017.
Pet Allergies: Making It Work. https://pets.webmd.com/features/pets-allergies#1. Accessed November 29, 2017.
Review Date: November 28, 2017 | Last Modified: November 29, 2017