Choosing the Right Pet When You Have Allergies

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A pet can be an important part of your family, but it can also be a source of frustration. If you or someone in your family suffers from allergies to pet dander, having a pet can even be a health risk.

Simply having an allergy to dogs, however, doesn’t mean you can’t have one in the home. You need to start by:

  • Having your allergist identify exactly what animals you’re allergic to and how severely.
  • Know the risks involved in exposure to those animals.
  • Do some research to determine which pet or specific breed might be best for you.

Accordingly, here are some basics that can get you started on picking the right pet:

  • There are several different types of pet allergies. You need to know whether you’re allergic to bird feathers, cat hair, dander from dogs, or some other source. There are some less obvious sources of allergens, however, when you have a pet. For example, if you have mold allergies you’ll want to watch for pets whose environments tend to foster mold, or that increase the humidity in a room. Tropical fish aquariums, for example, can increase a room’s humidity, leading to an increase in household mold as well as dust mites.
  • It’s not necessarily about the length of hair on the animal. Most animal allergies aren’t actually to the hair of the animal; they’re to the animal’s dander. Dander is the remains of skin cells, and it’s what most likely will cause an allergic reaction. (There are also allergens in an animal’s saliva and urine.)
  • Trial visits don’t necessarily let you know whether or not you’ll react to a given animal. It usually takes an average of about 20 weeks for the allergens produced by a pet to reach significant levels in a home. Being exposed to a given animal for a few minutes will in some cases result in an immediate allergic reaction, but if there’s no reaction it doesn’t mean the pet will necessarily work.
  • There are a number of low-allergen dog breeds you can consider. According to the American Kennel Club, there are a number of dogs that don’t produce as much dander as other dogs. Most are from the terrier family, although there are some that aren’t. Common low-allergen dog breeds include Schnauzers, Maltese, Bischon Frise, Chinese Crested, Portuguese Water Dogs, and others.
  • Some cats are low allergen as well. If you’re more of a feline lover, there are also some cats that can produce fewer allergens. Most of the low-allergen cats would fall into the “hairless” category, thereby producing less dander. Perhaps the best cat breed is a Sphinx cat, as these are almost entirely hairless. They  are, as you might expect, a fairly expensive cat as well.
  • Fish can be good, as well. While they may not have the personality of a cat or a dog, fish make fine pets for those with allergies, as well. Here again, the fish environment is fairly self-contained. Do watch out for how the fish tank impacts the humidity in your home. As mentioned, higher humidity can lead to mold, which can of course lead to an allergic reaction. In general, however, fish are a fairly safe choice for someone with allergies.
  • Birds can be good pets for allergies, but require special care. Birds actually created dander via their feathers. Because birds live in cages, however, the allergens can be contained. Make sure that the feathers as well as the droppings are cleaned regularly, and try to have a family member who doesn’t have allergies clean the bird’s cage.

The pet you choose, ultimately, depends a lot on what you’re hoping to get from the experience. If you want a companion, there’s still no better choice than a dog; just choose one of the low-allergen breeds. If you want to help a child learn about nature and try on the responsibility of caring for a pet, fish and reptiles make good choices, too. Pick the pet you want, but contain your choices to those that won’t aggravate your allergies.

About the Author: Dorothy Wheaton, PA-C, is the lead clinical provider for Careworks Convenient Healthcare, a US company operating health clinics and urgent care centers in the Northeast United States.

[IMAGE CREDIT: Some rights reserved by Esparta]