Animal allergies are common, particularly in people who have other allergies or asthma. People may have an allergy to any animal, especially those with fur or feathers. However, most animal allergies result from a person coming into contact with cats and dogs.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, up to 30% of people with allergies in the United States may experience an allergic reaction to cats and dogs.
People are about twice as likely to have a cat allergy than a dog allergy.
In this article, we will examine animal allergies and their causes. We will also look at the symptoms of animal allergies and potential treatments.
People with animal allergies usually react to harmless proteins that are present in an animal’s:
Dander is tiny flakes of dead skin cells in an animal’s fur, hair, or feathers that may induce allergy. Like cats and dogs, smaller mammals, such as rats, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, and birds, also shed dander.
Animals without fur, such as reptiles, amphibians, and fish, do not shed dander and have less chance of triggering an allergic reaction.
The number of people with animal allergies is increasing, and so is ownership of pets.
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, nearly 62% of households in the United States have pets, and over 161 million of these pets are cats or dogs.
When an allergen, such as animal skin flakes, pollen, or mold, causes inflammation inside the nose, allergic rhinitis occurs.
Allergic rhinitis happens when the immune system mistakenly identifies a harmless allergen, such as a specific animal protein, as a threat.
When people with allergies to animal proteins inhale them or have them touch their skin, the immune system may trigger a reaction.
The immune system responds to an allergen by releasing histamine. Histamine is a chemical in the body that causes the nose, throat, and skin symptoms that people associate with an allergic reaction.
Some people with animal allergies may experience allergic contact dermatitis. This type of dermatitis occurs when an allergen contacts the skin and causes an allergic reaction.
Proteins from animals may become airborne on microscopic particles. Dander may remain airborne for long periods or collect on furniture or clothing.
Animal saliva may stick to furniture, clothing, and carpets and become airborne once dry.
Animal allergies produce an inflammatory response in the nasal passages, lungs, or skin.
Nasal passage and lung symptoms of an animal allergy may include:
- itchy nose, eyes, roof of the mouth, or throat
- runny nose
- stuffy nose
- red or watery eyes
- blue-tinted skin under the eyes
- difficulty breathing
- wheezing when exhaling
- interrupted sleep due to shortness of breath
Skin symptoms of an animal allergy may include:
For some people, symptoms are minor and appear after several days of coming into contact with a pet. For others, coughing and shortness of breath may occur within 15–30 minutes of inhaling an allergen.
Managing an animal allergy involves avoiding the allergy-causing animal whenever possible. Minimizing exposure to the animal may help reduce allergic reactions and their severity.
To help control symptoms, a doctor may recommend medications, such as:
- Antihistamines: These may reduce the amount of histamine causing an allergic reaction and alleviate itching, runny nose, and sneezing.
- Corticosteroids: These steroid nasal sprays may reduce inflammation and ease sneezing and a runny or stuffy nose.
- Decongestants: These lessen swelling in the nasal passages, which makes breathing through the nose easier.
- Leukotriene modifiers: A doctor may prescribe these when antihistamines and corticosteroids are not a suitable option. They block the actions of certain chemicals the body releases, and they reduce inflammation and nasal congestion.
- Immunotherapy: This involves exposure to incremental increases of an allergen, which may reduce sensitivity to the substance over time.
It can be challenging to eliminate exposure to animal allergens, particularly if the animal is a pet or the person works with animals. People may also encounter animal allergens that other people carry around on their clothing.
The following suggestions may help reduce exposure to animal allergens:
- Create a pet-free zone: Making chosen areas of the house pet-free can help lessen allergens in those areas.
- Remove furnishings that attract dander: Pet dander collects on carpets, curtains, and horizontal blinds. If possible, replace carpet with tile, vinyl flooring, or wood that cleans easily.
- Clean the carpet frequently: Choosing carpets with a low pile and regularly steam cleaning them may help reduce pet dander in the room.
- Wash pets frequently: Washing a pet every week may decrease airborne allergens.
- Ask for help: Ask someone without a pet allergy to clean the pet’s bedding, cage, or litter tray. The helper could also brush the pet outside to remove some dander.
- Change clothing: After spending long periods with a pet, change clothing to reduce allergen exposure.
- Try high-efficiency filters: High-efficiency particulate air purifiers may decrease the amount of airborne allergens.
Some people with animal allergies may be more sensitive to some breeds of cats or dogs than others.
People may consider breeds that shed less to be hypoallergenic. However, dogs and cats that are nonallergic do not exist.
When introducing a new pet to the home, a trial period can help determine whether a person has an allergy to the animal.
A person should seek guidance from a doctor if they experience allergy symptoms that do not improve after making changes to lifestyle habits.
A doctor will likely ask questions about symptoms, when they first began, and whether anything improves or worsens them.
People with asthma who are having difficulty managing symptoms should also contact a doctor and discuss the possibility of allergies.
Types of allergy tests include:
During a skin test, an allergist places a tiny amount of allergen on the skin. Then they prick or scratch the skin to see whether any swelling appears. Test results are typically available within 15 minutes.
If results from a skin test are unclear, an allergist may use an intradermal test. During this type of test, an allergist will use a syringe to inject the allergen under the skin.
Sometimes an allergist may not perform a skin test due to a person having a skin condition. In this case, a doctor may order a blood test to screen for specific allergy-causing antibodies to various animal allergens.
A blood test may also indicate how sensitive a person is to a specific allergen.
Animal allergies are a common occurrence, especially among people with other allergies or asthma.
An animal allergy occurs when people come into contact with proteins in pet dander, saliva, or urine. The immune system mistakenly flags the protein as a threat and produces histamine, which causes allergy symptoms.
The most effective way to prevent animal allergy symptoms is to avoid the animal. However, there are steps people can take to reduce exposure to allergens from their pets.
Treatment options are available to help relieve inflammation and control allergy symptoms.