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PetPourri: Sneezes, Wheezes and Watery Eyes: Pets and Allergies

By: Hana Haatainen Caye

“Please!” they beg, day after day. “Please can we get a pet?” What’s a parent to do?

If you are reluctant to get a pet because of the possibility of allergies, you might have good reason. According to the American College of Allergies, Asthma and Immunology, approximately 10% of the country’s population is allergic to animals (or 25% for asthmatics). Every year, millions of pets are left in shelters and euthanized. Allergies are the number one reason provided for their surrender. To avoid this heartbreak and unfortunate circumstance, potential allergies are something to seriously think about when considering the commitment of owning a family pet.

Zip Code Magazines Pet Allergies 

Allergy Illusions

“Just get a hypoallergenic dog or cat,” a well-meaning friend suggests. The problem is, “hypo” simply means “less than,” not “non” as people tend to think. While there are those less likely to trigger an allergic reaction, the truth is all pets can cause problems for someone with allergies to animals. And, contrary to popular belief, it’s not hair that causes the allergic reaction!

Cats have sebaceous glands, such as the glycoprotein Fel d 1 (Felis domesticus), where allergens reside. These glands secrete the allergens through the skin and via the saliva. Whenever a cat bathes itself with its tongue, it spreads this protein, triggering all sorts of allergic symptoms in nearby sufferers. Dog allergens, on the other hand, stem from their dander (dead skin cells), saliva, and urine. In addition, pollen, dust and other allergens picked up by roaming pets is cause for concern.

Birds and smaller cage dwelling animals can cause problems as well. Reactions to feathers and droppings are somewhat common. Research shows that a continuous exposure to birds and their droppings can sometimes cause chronic, slowly progressive symptoms including a shortness of breath, loss of energy, and feeling of fatigue. Some birds, like cockatoos and African grays tend to produce the most dander. Guinea pigs, rabbits, and other rodents can also produce allergic symptoms, with Guinea pigs and rabbits being particularly problematic.


Now you know why, but how can you best determine if your household can tolerate the much desired addition of a new pet? One of the best ways to determine if someone in your family is allergic to a particular type of pet is to borrow one or offer to pet sit for a few days. Check with your friends, family members or co-workers and see if anyone would be willing to lend you their pet. If that isn’t possible, at least take the time to make multiple visits to animal shelters and pet stores, spending as much time as you can around the type of pet you are interested in. If you or your child has even the slightest allergic reaction, heed the warning and move on to a different option.

Safest Bets

The search for a pet to satisfy a sniffly family is far from hopeless. Some breeds and species are more agreeable to allergy sufferers than others.

Puppy Power

Due to pesky pollen, non-shedding dogs tend to be good choices when trying to reduce the possibility of allergies. The American Labradoodle or Bichon Frise are both great choices for hypoallergenic family dogs. Enthusiastic and playful, the American Labradoodle needs room to romp, so it is not an ideal apartment dweller. In contrast, Bichon Frise are good dogs for families in apartments or homes with small yards. Both breeds require frequent grooming, however, so keep the cost of monthly visits to the groomer in mind.

If your family includes young children, a Portuguese Water Dog may be the perfect pup. Known to be loyal, affectionate, pleasant-tempered and fun, even the First Family chose this animated breed for the White House due to Malia Obama’s allergies to dogs.

Other popular hypoallergenic dogs include:

  • Poodle
  • Kerry Blue Terrier
  • Schnauzer
  • Italian Greyhound
  • Bedlington Terrier
  • Yorkshire Terrier
  • Havanese
  • Maltese
  • Basenji

Check online for rescue sites and/or register your breed of choice at local shelters to avoid puppy mills.

The Cat’s Meow

The Devon Rex and the moderately longhaired Siberian head up the list for least-allergenic felines, which also include the Cornish Rex, Balinese, and Oriental Shorthair. Despite being super-fluffy, up to 75% of people with cat allergies don’t show allergic reactions to Siberians. These affectionate, dog-like kitties shed less than most cats, have less dander, and have a lower amount of Fel d 1 in their saliva. P.S. Lessen your risk further by adopting a male, light-colored kitty as some research concludes dark-furred cats are four times worse than lighter-furred when it comes to allergens. Female cats may also produce more Fel d 1.

Birds and Other Critters

Parakeets and cockatiels produce much less dander, making them a better choice for allergy sufferers. Rats are a surprising yet especially good choice due to their short fur and affectionate nature. According to author Marty Becker, DVM, “Rats are a good choice if you want hands-on interaction. They have less hair than other rodents and love being handled.” Don’t discount reptiles including snakes, frogs and lizards, as well as fish either. Although they may not be as interactive as a dog or cat, with proper care and maintenance they can make great pets for those allergic to more traditional pets.

Preventative Measures

In order to reduce the chances of allergic reactions to whichever pet you choose, there are a few tips you should note:

  • Location- Pets should not share bedrooms with people with allergies. Period. Keep the dog or cat off the beds and the cages/tanks out of the kids’ rooms.
  • Cleanliness – Neglecting cleaning up after a pet can cause all sorts of health risks, including asthma attacks and itchy eyes. Droppings in rodent cages should be cleaned daily with a thorough cleaning of the enclosure weekly to cut down on allergens. Vacuuming, dusting and mopping should be performed frequently.
  • Bathing – Cats and dogs need weekly baths using special shampoo to remove dander and excess hair. Apple cider vinegar rinses not only soften fur, but will repel fleas as well.
  • HEPA air cleaners – Installation of air cleaners can dramatically reduce allergen risks.
  • Expose children to pets during their first year of life. Studies have shown this might halt the development of animal allergies altogether.

Unfortunately, no matter how careful you are when choosing a pet, allergies can still crop up down the road. Before adding a pet to your family, have a contingent plan. Check with friends to see if they would be willing to adopt your pet if the time came that you simply had to give him up because of an allergy situation or emergency, or ask the shelter, store or breeder if they take back pets under those conditions. Be sure to obtain a written copy of their policies.

Choosing the right pet and following allergy prevention guidelines can lead to a fulfilling and fun relationship with your furry, or not-so-furry, family addition.

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