What are pet allergies?
You may already know that cats and dogs can give you a blocked nose, itchy watery eyes or a skin rash – sometimes all at once. But they’re not the only animals to cause allergic reactions. Guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, mice and rats, horses and even farm animals can do it. What’s more, if you’re allergic to one animal others could get you sneezing too.
Animals may be cute and cuddly but pet allergies are usually no fun at all. So let us help you find out more about the condition. We’ll talk about the symptoms, how to get a diagnosis and what some of the treatment options are. Don’t let pet allergies hold you back.
Pet allergies: the inside story
A pet allergy is part of how you’re made. It’s rooted in your immune system. The immune system’s job is to defend your body against infectious bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. It can be over-sensitive though. And that leads it to mistake harmless substances – like tiny particles shed by an animal – as a threat.
You come into contact with a pet allergen. Your immune system thinks it’s under attack and reacts by producing Immunoglobin E (IgE) antibodies. The antibodies send chemicals like histamine to the attack site; your skin, maybe, or the lining of your nose if you’ve breathed in the particles. And those chemicals cause your pet allergy symptoms.
Common pet allergies
One European study found that of all the adults who seek medical help for suspected respiratory allergies 27% are sensitised to dogs and 26% to cats. That’s the first step to developing an allergy – although it may never develop. But Felix and Fido are not the only culprits.
Many animals with fur and feathers can trigger a reaction. That’s family pets like rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs, budgies and parrots. Mice and rats, pets and pests. And larger animals like horses, ponies, cows and sheep. Even the chickens laying your breakfast.
There has been a case in the medical journals of pet iguanas triggering symptoms. But scaly and slimy animals such as fish, tortoises, snakes, lizards, toads and frogs are not as likely to cause pet allergies.
Fur and feathers and pet allergies
Reptiles and amphibians are less sneezy because they don’t shed pet dander or tiny particles of dead skin. Furry and feathered animals do. And pet dander is an important source of pet allergens. You can also be allergic to proteins in saliva, urine and sebum, the natural skin moisturizer produced by the sebaceous glands. Which of these is the most important source varies from animal to animal.
Pet hair itself is not allergenic. The fur and feathers trap the allergens which fly into the air whenever the animal moults or cleans itself. Also when you get out the grooming brush or change their bedding.
Pet allergies: why do I react to different animals?
Pet allergies can be more complicated than simply being allergic to cats or dogs. Each type of animal produces several different allergens. The important ones belong to two protein families, lipocalin or serum albumin. Your immune system reacts because the protein from the other animal is similar to your trigger. You might be allergic to dogs but get symptoms from cats, horses, rabbits, mice or rats. It’s called a cross-reaction. Cat allergy could get in the way of working with big cats if that’s what you want to do.
Can children get pet allergies?
Yes they can. Which might make you cautious about having cats and dogs no matter how energetic the pleading, especially if allergy runs in the family. Look out for children rubbing their nose upwards with the palm of their hand. The allergic salute, as it’s known, is a pet allergy symptom in children.
As an aside, scientists think exposure to animal allergens as babies may lower the risk of children getting allergies by the age of seven to nine. And it seems that the more pets at home, the greater the protection potentially.
Pet allergy symptoms
Airborne animal allergens can easily find their way into your nasal passages and eyes. The delicate membranes then become inflamed and it might feel like you have a cold. Except your symptoms won’t go in a week. The medical name for it is perennial or persistent allergic rhinitis (unlike hay fever which is seasonal allergic rhinitis). This brings with it:
- Stuffy nose
- Runny nose
- Itchy nose
- Itchy, red watery eyes
Someone who’s very sensitive to pet allergens might start coughing within 15-30 minutes of breathing them in.
Can pet allergies cause severe reactions?
Animals are not one of the common causes of anaphylaxis which is a severe allergic reaction. But horse allergy can be life-threatening in rare cases. Call an ambulance immediately if you or someone you’re with gets these symptoms:
- Feeling lightheaded or faint
- Difficulties with breathing, such as fast or shallow breathing
- A fast heartbeat
- Clammy skin
- Confusion and anxiety
- Collapsing or losing consciousness
When to ask for a pet allergy diagnosis
Maybe you’re getting symptoms like these and they’re leaving you sleep deprived, short on energy, struggling to focus at work or school. A diagnosis is the first step to getting a treatment plan and other advice so that pet allergies don't restrict your life.
Your allergist or doctor might suggest allergy testing to help identify your trigger(s); commonly a skin prick test or allergy blood test. You might be allergic to dogs or cats. It could also be something your pet routinely picks up in their fur like mould or pollen that’s giving you trouble.
Be ready to talk about:
- Your symptoms including when, where and how severe they are
- How often you’re in contact with animals and which ones
- Your medical history and whether allergies run in your family
Managing your pet allergies
It’s almost impossible to avoid cat allergens and dog allergens completely. And you might be surprised by how widespread horse allergens are too. In general pet allergens are small, sticky, float in the air and get to places where that animal has never been. People carry them in their hair and clothes. You can pick them up too. So symptoms may strike almost anywhere: at home, where you socialise and at work. That means in offices as well as on the farm or at the riding stables. And if you own a pet and decide to rehome it after a diagnosis the allergens are likely to stick around for months.
But there are good habits you can build into your lifestyle which may help lessen your symptoms.
Strategies for living with pet allergies
Mostly it’s down to cleaning and washing thoroughly whenever you’ve had contact with an animal. Also assuming you’ve picked up pet allergens whenever you’ve been out and about. Remember, they get everywhere. So here are three main areas to think about:
- You: Try to avoid touching animals. That means no petting, stroking or grooming. If you do come into contact with a furry beast wash your hands as soon as you can afterwards. And your clothes, especially if you’ve been riding. You and your clothes will be covered with horse allergens. And try always to have a shower when you get home.
- Your home: Create a pet-free zone, definitely including your bedroom. Use a HEPA air cleaner to keep animal allergen levels as low as possible. And regularly wipe surfaces with a damp cloth (keep them clear of objects that collect dust too). Vacuum upholstery and wash cushion covers or throws.
- Your pet: Ask a friend who doesn’t have cat allergies or dog allergies to take care of grooming and bathing your pet. And to do it outside. Same goes for cleaning out smaller animals’ cages. And regularly wash and replace bedding and toys.
Treatments for pet allergy symptoms
Medication like antihistamines, corticosteroids and decongestants can help keep your animal allergy symptoms under control. They come in several forms and strengths. They can also work as a preventative measure if you take them before you have contact with an animal. Many are available over the counter so ask the pharmacist or talk to your GP to find out what might work for you.
If you have severe horse allergy you might be prescribed an auto-injecting adrenaline pen and trained to use it in the event of a severe reaction.
Long term relief with pet allergy immunotherapy
There is no cure for pet allergies but specialist treatments may offer long-term relief. Allergy immunotherapy treats the underlying cause of your symptoms. Controlled repeated exposure to the allergens helps your body to build up tolerance to it. Cat, dog and horse allergy immunotherapy may be an alternative to current medical treatment in more severe cases.
Your doctor can tell you more about allergy immunotherapy, including possible side effects, and discuss whether it’s suitable for you.
We’re here to help
If you’ve read all the way to the end of this article, thank you. We’d love to know what you think. If you have any questions or would like to share your story of living with pet allergies, email us or head over to our Facebook page.