When I turned 9 years old a major transformation happened: My eyes watered constantly, my nose itched uncontrollably and sneezing became an all-day, everyday occurrence. That’s because at 9, my family adopted our first dog. Ashley was an 8-year-old, buff-colored Cocker Spaniel who’d been neglected medically and emotionally. We took her in, and this precious, gentle doggie transformed into a happy, healthy family member whom we loved dearly. It turned out, however, we were all allergic to her.
Jennifer Hanes, DO, of Houston, Texas, explained to me that people commonly think they’re allergic to their pets’ fur, but that’s not the case.
“Animal allergies are to the dander of a pet (which is the dead skin cells that slough off), as well as the urine and feces of the pet,” says Hanes, who is board-certified in emergency medicine. “Generally, allergies are not to the fur of an animal, although it is a commonly held misconception. When these dander are inhaled, it can cause an allergic reaction.”
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America estimates that 40 million people in the United States have indoor/outdoor allergies — and pet allergies fall under that category. Of those people who Fido and Fifi make sneeze, 10 million are specifically allergic to cats, which is actually more common than allergies to dogs. In fact, Hanes says that some data even indicates that male cats and dogs may be more likely to cause symptoms. The worst news is that allergic reactions, by their nature, get stronger over time, Hanes warns.
“So, what may be a mild allergy today could be a life-threatening one in the near future,” she says. “Often, dramatic steps may be in order.”
That kind of freaked me out, because since I was 9, I’ve never been without a pet — cat or dog — and I don’t plan on ever living without them. After all, coping with allergies to our furry companions is a small price to pay for the love and comfort our pets so selflessly give. So what can those of us who start sneezing and wheezing at the first sight of a cat or dog do to make it easier to deal with those allergies?
Paul Smiley, owner of Way’s Cleaning Service in Pembroke Pines, Florida, says there are several steps we can take to help curb our sniffles. In his experience, pet dander is the most common allergen found in homes, and that, along with causing itchy eyes and runny noses, the dead skin can trigger asthma attacks, eye inflammation, sneezing and skin irritation. Yikes!
He gave me eight tips for us pet owners to effectively reduce the allergens in our homes and help control my allergies.
1. Brush and bathe your pet often to prevent the dander from being spread around the home. This may be weekly or more often, depending on the pet and season. Your veterinarian can make recommendations on how often to do this based on your breed of dog or cat.
2. Vacuum regularly and use a HEPA filter. These filters are designed to reduce the micro particles from blowing back into the air. In addition to floors, be sure to vacuum the furniture, curtains, lamp shades and even fan blades. I totally didn’t think of that.
3. Upgrade your air conditioning filter to one that offers the maximum filtration — the back of most filter packages have a rating and explanation on the size and type of particle that is removed. It’s also important to replace the filter monthly, because the filtration lessens drastically after 30 days of use. Upgrading from a $5 filter to a $15 filter can show a difference in just a few days. Totally worth the money.
4. Keep pets off furniture and beds. Uh oh, this may seem difficult to do, but it will make a tremendous difference, Smiley says, by lessening the allergy triggers that are close to your face. Your quality of sleep can be affected in a bed with hair and dander, even impacting your breathing.
5. Consider hard floor surfaces instead of carpet, which trap allergens and are then released in the air when we walk across them. If carpeting is a must, vacuum often and have it professionally cleaned regularly.
6. Launder and change your pets’ bedding weekly.
7. Dust and vacuum areas that are off of the floor, such as shelves, plants, curtains and blinds. Fans, air conditioning and heating units easily blow dander around a room. Smiley said disposable static dusters and vacuum attachments work well on these areas.
8. Avoid harsh cleansers such as ammonia, bleach and oven cleaners, which Smiley says have the potential to further irritate people with allergies, and pets, too. Instead, use natural plant-based cleaners for glass, counter tops, kitchen and bath areas.