What are pet allergies?
Pet allergies are allergic reactions to certain proteins, called allergens. These allergens are found on animal fur and skin, urine, and in animal saliva. Most animal companions, including cats, dogs, rabbits, rodents and birds produce allergens.
Not everyone experiences pet allergies. Some people are only allergic to certain animals. For those with allergies, their bodies launch an immune system response when they encounter allergens. This allergic reaction occurs because the body mistakes a substance that is harmless to others (the allergen) as a damaging invader.
When your immune system responds to any allergen, it forms specific proteins, called antibodies. Antibodies alert cells to release histamine and other cellular substances, which cause allergy symptoms. People can be allergic to many substances, including pollens and other plant materials, certain foods, dust, mold, insect stings and even medications.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of pet allergies?
You may have several allergy symptoms while you are around a pet or soon afterward. In most cases, pet allergy symptoms include:
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- Itchy skin
- Scratchy throat or mouth
- Raised, red patches on the skin (hives)
- Asthma symptoms, including chest tightness, difficulty breathing or wheezing
Pet allergy symptoms mimic those caused by other allergens, like pollen, dust or mold. Many of these symptoms, such as sneezing and runny nose, can also result from illnesses like influenza or the common cold. Your doctor can help you pinpoint the cause of your symptoms.
Diagnosis and Tests
How are pet allergies diagnosed?
Doctors diagnose pet allergies with a simple skin or blood test. In some cases, doctors use self-reported evidence as proof of pet allergies. For example, your doctor may diagnose pet allergies if you get hives after being around a certain type of animal.
During skin testing, a doctor:
- Uses a very small needle to prick your skin
- Puts small amounts of different allergens into your skin
- Adds a neutral agent as a comparison
- Watches for skin reactions, such as redness, swelling (bumps) or itching
Your skin reacts only to the specific allergens that affect your body. Skin reactions to allergens usually occur within 15 minutes of exposure.
Your doctor may recommend a blood test if you are taking certain medications or if a skin prick test would be unsafe.
Management and Treatment
How are pet allergies treated?
The best way to avoid pet allergies is to avoid animals that trigger allergic reactions. These animals may include cats, dogs and small mammals, like rabbits.
If avoiding animals is not possible, you can take steps to prevent or reduce the severity of your symptoms by:
- Avoiding hugging, petting or kissing animals
- Having someone with no pet allergies brush the pet outdoors frequently
- Using a microfilter vacuum bag and HEPA air filters to remove as many pet allergens as possible from the home
- Removing rugs and carpets that can trap pet allergens
- Keeping pets out of your bedroom and off upholstered furniture
Your doctor may recommend certain medications, like nasal steroids and antihistamines, to help control pet allergy symptoms and lessen your allergic reaction.
In severe cases, it may be necessary to rehome an animal.
Can pet allergies be prevented?
The best way to prevent pet allergies is to avoid exposure to animals that cause an allergic reaction. Following your doctor’s recommended regimen of allergy medication can minimize your reactions and reduce symptoms when you are around animals.
For some people, allergy shots (immunotherapy) offer a long-term treatment solution to managing pet allergies. Each time you have an allergy shot, your body responds by lowering your sensitivity to the allergen. Depending on your unique situation, allergy shots may help prevent pet allergy symptoms even after you stop receiving this treatment. Talk with your doctor about whether allergy shots may be a good choice for you.