One of the few bright spots of the COVID-19 Pandemic is that it has inspired people to adopt more pets.  In fact, animal shelters across the country have been emptying out.

Unfortunately, for the 30% of the population with pet allergies, adoption may not seem like an option. While cat allergies are more common than dog allergies, they both can be problematic.

How do I know if I’m allergic to dogs or cats?

If you find yourself coughing, wheezing, or rubbing your eyes when pets are around, chances are you’re allergic. Allergies can also cause skin reactions. In milder cases, your skin might break out where a dog licks you. If you have more severe allergies, you might develop hives on your face or stomach.  People with asthma and pet allergies can suffer from even more serious symptoms such as difficulty breathing.

Even if you’re pretty confident you have pet allergies, it’s usually a good idea to get tested.  Your doctor can do either a skin test or a blood test. Some people who assume that they have dog allergies turn out to actually be allergic to the pollen or mold that pets bring in from outside. Also, cats and dogs produce different allergy-causing proteins, so it’s possible to be allergic to one and not the other.

What causes an allergy?

An allergic reaction just means that your immune system is overreacting to something that is normally harmless. Unfortunately, pets bring with them a number of different things that can induce your body to go into attack mode.

What is it about pets that makes so many people react?

Dogs and cats both produce several different substances that can cause allergies:

Dander: If you have a dog or cat, you may have noticed what looks like skin flakes floating through the air or collecting in corners of your home. Those flakes are actually a combination of skin, hair, and oil from your pet called dander. Many people with pet allergies are actually reacting to the proteins from the oil found in dander.

Even if you can’t see the dander, it’s still there.  Dander particles can get trapped in carpets, bedding, and anything plush.  When disturbed, the dander gets released into the air, triggering allergies.

Hair: While pet hair alone rarely causes a reaction, it does help to trap dander.  The more hair your pet sheds, the more dander gets released into the air.  Low-shedding or curly-haired pets tend to put out less dander, but all dogs and cats have dander, so none are truly hypo-allergenic.

Pet Saliva and Urine: Both saliva and urine contain potential allergy-causing proteins. People with allergies can react to being licked or from any contact with dog or cat urine. Pets who frequently have “accidents” can be especially troublesome for people with allergies.  Washing pets can help clean the urine proteins off of their fur, but getting rid of it completely is almost impossible.

Unfortunately, the only sure-fire way to avoid allergic reactions to dogs or cats is not to bring them into your home.

But, what if you’ve already fallen in love?

The good news is that, for people with less-severe allergies, there are a number of things you can do to minimize your reactions.

Don’t use carpets or upholstered furniture. The less areas for dander to collect, the better. Bare floors and leather (or plastic) furniture are much easier to keep clean and free of dust or dander.

Clean frequently. Frequently wiping surfaces and mopping floors will limit the amount of allergy-inducing proteins in your home.

Wash your pet… outside. Bathing your pet once a week may help reduce the amount of dander it gives off.  There are certain shampoos you can buy that are helpful in reducing dander as well.

Groom your pet. Regularly brushing your pet’s hair outside can be a good way to keep dander to a minimum so it doesn’t end up in your house.  If brushing your pet’s hair yourself is allergy-inducing, professional groomers may be a better option.

Limit the areas they can be in. For some people with less severe allergies, just keeping pets out of their bedroom can be enough to make the situation manageable.  If you don’t want to get rid of your carpets or furniture, you also might consider restricting pets from access to rooms that have anything plush.

Get an air purifier with a true HEPA filter. Air purifiers with HEPA filters are very effective in eliminating pet dander from the air. A really high-quality air purifier can also get rid of unpleasant pet odors.

If your allergies are severe, these precautions may still not be enough.  But, for most people, keeping your home, air, and pet clean will allow you to live comfortably with your furry friend.