Contrary to popular belief, people are not allergic to an animal’s hair, but rather, to a protein found in the saliva, dander (dead skin flakes) or urine of an animal with fur. These proteins are carried in the air on very small, invisible particles, which can land on the lining of the eyes or nose, or be inhaled directly into the lungs.
A cat or dog produces a certain amount of allergen per week, and this amount can vary from animal to animal. All breeds are capable of triggering symptoms—there are no “hypoallergenic” breeds of cats or dogs. However, it is now known that non-neutered male cats and dogs may be more allergenic than females.
If you cannot avoid exposure to the animal that causes your allergy symptoms, try to minimize contact. Most importantly, keep the pet out of the bedroom and other rooms in which those with allergies spend a great deal of time. Some studies have demonstrated that bathing dogs or cats on a weekly basis may reduce the amount of allergens that are shed in the home. This issue remains controversial. If you plan to wash your pet regularly, consult with your veterinarian regarding care of the animal’s skin to prevent excessive dryness. Also, have a non-allergic family member brush the pet outside to remove loose hair and allergens. While dander and saliva are the source of cat and dog allergens, urine is the source of allergens from rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs; ask a non-allergic family member to clean the animal’s cage.
Animal allergens can accumulate on all horizontal and even vertical surfaces in the home. Mattresses and cushions should be covered in zippered, plastic casings to prevent the release of allergens. Vacuuming is not effective in decreasing animal allergens, because it does not clean the lower levels of the rug. In fact, it can stir up small allergen particles, which can also move right through the vacuum. Using a HEPA vacuum filter or double bags may help. As with dust mites, the best solution is to have a hardwood floor, tile or linoleum. Replace bedding and carpeting that has animal dander in it. It can take weeks or months for fabrics to come clean of allergens, and animal allergens may persist for a year or more after the animal has been removed. The most recent research shows that making just one or two changes may not be enough. Multiple environmental changes are required before one can see significant improvement.
Allergen immunotherapy (subcutaneous allergy immunotherapy which may be referred to as SCIT), also known as “allergy shots,” are recommended for persons who don’t respond well to treatment with medications, experience side effects from medications, who have allergen exposure that is unavoidable, or desire a more permanent solution to their allergic problem. Immunotherapy can be very effective in controlling allergic symptoms. Allergen immunotherapy may help prevent the development of sensitivity to new allergens and decrease the risk for developing asthma in patients with allergic rhinitis Immunotherapy is not indicated for patients with pure non-allergic rhinitis. Allergy injections can be very effective in helping to control symptoms caused by exposure to cat and dog dander.