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Pet Allergies: What They Are and How to Stop Them

May 13th, 2019

by Alec Lower

Pet dander can be a nightmare for allergy sufferers, but the right tips for managing your allergy will make your time with your pet a lot more fun.

Pet Allergies: What They Are and How to Stop Them

Pet dander can be a nightmare for allergy sufferers, but the right tips for managing your allergy will make your time with your pet a lot more fun.

by Alec Lower

It's your birthday. Your family tells you they have a surprise for you. Your wife walks in with a German Shepherd. You're all about some German Shepherds, and you've always wanted one. Your new companion runs up to you to say hi. Everything is great, until the first sneeze hits. Then comes two more. Your eyes begin to water and itch. Something is happening. Something not good.

Congratulations! You have a pet allergy. In fact, you're one of around 30 million Americans that have such an affliction (sorry, you aren't unique). A pet allergy is definitely not fun, especially if you're a dog or cat lover, but with the right approach, you can overcome this common condition.

What is a pet allergy?

It's a common misconception that a pet allergy is an allergy to your animal's fur, but you aren't actually allergic to something on the pet itself. You're mostly allergic to what is known as pet dander, which the dog or cat releases into the air. The American Lung Association defines dander as "composed of tiny, even microscopic, flecks of skin shed by cats, dogs, rodents, birds and other animals with fur or feathers." At the molecular level, the allergic reaction is triggered by proteins within dander. These proteins can also be found in your pet's saliva, urine, and other not so pleasant things that come out of your animal. So while dander is the headline allergen, it's not the only carrier of these proteins that your pet will release into the environment.

Pet dander is small, and it floats in the air with ease, which is why it is such a threat to Indoor Air Quality. When it does come in contact with a surface, the jagged shape of the particle allows it to stick easily, especially if that surface is soft like a carpet, sofa, or sweater. Dander often bonds to pet hair, which is why some believe non-shed or low-shed dogs are better for allergy sufferers. Since these proteins are still produced in other places such as saliva though, there will never be such thing as an allergen-free dog.

People with highly-sensitive immune systems are typically at risk for pet allergies. Allergens from pets, such as dander, are not actually harmful to the body. Like any allergy though, the immune system mistakes them as nefarious invaders and attempts to expel them from the body through sneezing fits and other super fun reactions.

cat allergies are twice as common as dog allergies

How do you fight back?

So how do you remove these allergens? Well, get a goldfish. It's impossible to own a furry pet and completely eliminate allergens. Every cat, dog, bird, or whatever will produce these allergens. Yes, even one that is described as hypoallergenic.

SN Tip: Pet dander is everywhere. Even if you don't own a cat or dog, you'll still come in contact with dander because of how well it travels on people's clothes. You could go to the mall and find pet dander that probably got there on someone's sweater.

While it's impossible to eliminate, there are several relatively simple things you can do routinely to make your time with your furry friend a whole lot less sneezy.

Bathe and brush your animal.

Dogs need baths regularly anyways because they get stinky. If you're an allergy sufferer, your fur baby needs baths more frequently, because you're bathing them to help wash off dander particles, not just to clean them and make them smell nice.

SN Tip: Cats do not take baths. If you try to bathe your cat, you will regret it, quickly.

It's recommended that you bathe your dog twice a week if you deal with allergies. Be sure to use a pet shampoo that promotes healthy skin. Dry or irritated skin will shed more, putting more allergens in the air. Regular bathing will wash away dander and loose hair as well as strengthen your pup's skin. All of this results in cleaner air for you and your family.

Brushing your pet should also be part of an allergy sufferer’s regular grooming routine. Be sure to brush them at least once a week, as this helps remove loose hairs that can carry allergens in your home. Always brush your pet outdoors and, if possible, have a non-allergic family member do it. If you have to do it, be sure to use some sort of face covering, such as a dust mask. You may look ridiculous, but it's better than endless sneezing.

Use the right air filter.

You probably just rolled your eyes at this, given the fact that we sell air filters. This is actually really important though. As mentioned, dander can suspend in the air for a very long time, meaning a lot of it can be pulled through your HVAC system. A quality air filter that can block these particles will stop them from circulating through your ducts and back into your home's air.

Regularly replaced air filters are essential for all allergy sufferers, but pet allergy sufferers may have the greatest need for a good filter. Pet allergens don't need to enter your home from the outside world like pollen or smog, because the source of the pollutant is already inside your home. So dander is always an issue for your Indoor Air Quality.

A MERV 11 air filter should be the minimum for any pet owner, and those with an allergy should strongly consider using a MERV 13. These levels of filtration will be more efficient against smaller particles like dander that can slide by lower levels of filtration.

Vacuum your home often.

Cutting off allergens at the source, like removing dander with frequent dog baths, helps. But, it's also necessary to take out the ones that snuck past your initial defense. Vacuum your floors and furniture thoroughly and frequently. To reiterate, pet dander sticks to soft surfaces easily, so places like couches and carpets are especially vulnerable. Regularly clean these surfaces and, if possible, consider replacing carpet with wood floors. The easier your floor is to clean, the more control you can have over the allergens in your environment. Alternatively, if you can't say no to rugs, at the very least, you should prioritize deep cleaning them every year.

SN Tip: If you can keep your pet off the sofa altogether, you should do that. Places like sofas and beds can be a repository for dander because of how easily the particles stick to them.

SN Tip: There is actually a wide array of vacuums on the market today that are specifically designed to take on pet hair and dander Pet Life Today released their picks for pest vacuums here, and you can find many other lists across the internet.

"Hypoallergenic" pets.

If you don't yet own a pet, but you want one and you know you have a pet allergy, you're probably at some point going to search for hypoallergenic pets. Don't be confused about what these are. There is no such thing as an allergen-free dog or cat, and hypoallergenic isn't a veterinary term used to classify animals based on their potential for causing allergic reactions. Hypoallergenic is only an adjective used to describe dogs that are less likely to cause allergic reactions.

All dogs and cats produce proteins that ultimately cause allergic reactions. The idea of these hypoallergic dogs is that they shed at a below average rate, and since dander is primarily released on hair that has been shed, these animals release less of the allergen into the environment.

The same concept applies to cats, although there is some anecdotal evidence and small sample size tests that say that certain cat breeds actually produce fewer of the allergen protein Fel D1, which is the primary allergy trigger that comes from cats. The evidence is not conclusive though.

Numerous studies have been done on whether or not the hypoallergenic concept is real, and many of these produce results that disagree with each other. Lynn Buzhardt of the VCA writes that "Even though there is no canine breed that is 100% hypoallergenic, there are breeds that are less likely to stimulate allergies in people." It's important to remember that less likely does not mean less likely for every single person. Buzhardt goes on to say "How hypoallergenic a dog is may depend on the individual dog and person. Not all dogs produce the same proteins, so some people are allergic to a specific dog, not a specific breed."

So buying a dog or cat that is said to be hypoallergenic isn't a guarantee of anything, but as an allergy sufferer, if you would like to give one of the lower-shedding breeds a chance and see if it might be helpful for your specific case, check out the dogs and cats listed here.

SN Tip: Regardless of the success of it, adopting a hypoallergenic dog or cat will never be a substitute for routine allergy management.

Consider some allergy medication.

There is a decent chance that if you have a pet allergy, you probably have at least a mild allergy to something else, so you may have some allergy meds around. Antihistamines like Zyrtec or Claritin block receptors that trigger allergic reactions, making them the centerpiece of an allergy medication arsenal. Go get some of these if you don't already have them.

Decongestants are a second option. These target inflamed nasal passages, which can alleviate congestion as a symptom from an allergic reaction. Just like antihistamines, you can purchase these over the counter—both tablets and nasal sprays are effective options.

SN Tip: some allergy medications work best for some people. It all depends on your biochemistry and what your specific allergy may be.

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You do not have to give up your loveable furry friend, or your cat, if you find that you are among the 30 million Americans that have to deal with a pet allergy. You might need to put a little more work into grooming your pet and managing your allergy, but both you and Fido will be happy that you did. Speaking of Fido, how did that become the universal name for dogs? Does anyone actually know a dog named Fido? Anyways, that's the blog.

Are you an allergy sufferer looking to get a better air filter? Check out our Catch More and Catch All options today. Both are great for pet dander.

Alec Lower
Alec Lower
Social Media and Content Specialist
After graduating from NC State, I joined Second Nature in the summer of 2018. I have always loved writing and enjoy blogging on subjects that are important to families and homeowners. Outside of work, I love to fish and am a huge college sports fan.