You thought you brought home a dog that wouldn’t make you allergic. After all, even the American Kennel Club website assured you his breed was hypoallergenic. And things seemed to be fine — for about a year. But now, every time you pet him or come back into your home from outside, your eyes become itchy. Your nose starts running, and your throat burns. What happened?
What happened was that it took a year for your body to build up enough antibodies to the substance on your dog that causes allergic reactions. That’s the way it goes sometimes.
That info about some dog breeds being hypoallergenic? Not true. There’s no such thing as a dog to whom an allergic reaction is impossible.
Part of the confusion is that people often think the allergy is to a dog’s hair, or fur, so that if they brush regularly or get a hairless dog, they will not have an allergy to their pet. The thing is, what causes the uncomfortable symptoms of an allergic reaction is not a dog’s hair but his dander — flakes of dead skin cells that every single dog sloughs off. Allergens — the offending substances that cause the problems — are also found in a dog’s saliva (and urine). That’s why some people break out in hives where a dog licks them — the allergens make their way directly onto the skin with the slobbering.
True, dead skin cells often make their way to a dog’s hair, so if you brush your dog assiduously or have a hairless dog, there will be fewer allergens around. Smaller dogs also produce less dander than larger ones. Still, in some cases, all it takes is a tiny amount of a dog’s dander to start an allergic reaction. And there’s no way to tell before you adopt a dog whether you’re going to be affected down the line — although if you are already known to have allergic reactions to airborne allergens like dust and pollen, the chances are greater.
The incidence of allergies to dogs has gone up substantially in industrialized countries like ours over the last 60 years because houses are now being built more air-tight to preserve energy. Also, many more people have pets today. (Cat allergies are even more common than dog allergies, according to the ASPCA.) The upshot: according to the National Institutes of Health, detectable levels of pet dander are in every single house in the United States.
But there is good news. Unless the allergic reaction your dog causes makes you wheeze to the point that it’s difficult to breathe or causes your throat to swell up and keep air from coming in, there’s a very good chance that you’ll be able to take steps to minimize the aggravating, but not harmful, symptoms. These may include not just watery eyes and a runny nose but also coughing, sneezing, a scratchy throat, itchy skin, and sometimes, hives. In other words, more often than not, having an allergy to your dog does not mean you will have to part with him. In fact, parting with a beloved dog may not solve the problem. Many people who are allergic to dogs are also allergic to other allergens that are breathed in: dust mites and the like.
Here are 15 symptom-relieving steps to take. Many of them will cut down not only on dog allergens but also on other environmental allergens in your home.
1. Get tested by an allergist. Blood tests and skin tests are not foolproof for diagnosing an allergy to a particular substance, but they are pretty good. And you may find, for instance, that you are not allergic to your dog but to the pollen or other airborne allergens like mold that he carries in on his body from the outside.
2. If you are found or suspected to be allergic to dogs, both the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States recommend creating an allergen-free zone in your home. The most logical place would be your bedroom, where you spend a third of your life. Keeping your pet out of your bedroom won’t keep all allergens out of there; the tiny molecules that make up allergens can make their way through a closed door. But it will certainly cut down on the dander. Enhance the effect by using hypoallergenic bedding and pillow materials.
3. Limit fabrics in your home as much as possible. Allergens pile up in drapes, upholstery, and rugs. The more you can keep them to a minimum (wall-to-wall carpet is definitely harder to keep allergen-free than wood or tile floors), the fewer surfaces your dog’s allergens will have to cling to. Regularly steam-clean those fabrics you do have. Also, use washable blinds and shades on your windows.
4. Vacuum frequently. But make sure you use a vacuum equipped with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate arresting) filter or a disposable electrostatic bag. Other vacuuming options are just going to spew the allergens back into the air.
5. Add an air cleaner with a HEPA filter to central heating and air conditioning. Otherwise, central climate control sends allergens throughout the house. You can also install an air purifier fitted with a HEPA filter. (Letting in some fresh air daily will also let out some allergens trapped in your home’s atmosphere.)
6. Consider anti-allergen room sprays. Your allergist may be able to recommend a spray that deactivates allergens and thereby makes them harmless.
7. Don’t just dust regularly; wipe down the walls. That, too, will cut down on allergen build-up.
8. Buy only pet bedding that’s washable (see the article beginning on page 3), and crates that can be cleaned often and easily.
9. Bathe your dog at least once a week. The bath will help wash off allergens that accumulate in his hair. Talk with your veterinarian to be sure you choose a shampoo that won’t dry out his sensitive skin.
10. Give your pet wipe-downs. There are products formulated to help prevent dander from building up and flaking off into the environment. Again, talk with your vet so she can recommend one that is safe to use even if your dog ends up licking himself. You don’t want him ingesting anything that could prove toxic to him.
11. Brush or comb your dog frequently, every single day, if possible. It’s best if you can do this outdoors, although of course if it’s too hot or too cold, you’ll have to brush inside the house.
12. We keep saying “you” for cleaning the dog and the house, but “you” should really be someone in your household who’s not allergic to the family pet. If the person responsible has got to be you, wear a dust mask while cleaning.
13. Always wash your hands after petting Fido — and most definitely before you touch your face. The areas around the eyes and nose can be particularly sensitive to allergens and get the symptoms going all too easily.
14. Consider using one set of clothes as a pet outfit, the Humane Society recommends. That way, you can cuddle with your dog to your heart’s content without contaminating your entire wardrobe.
15. Work with your allergist to come up with medications you can take on an ongoing basis to alleviate symptoms. Immunotherapy (allergy shots) works well for some people. Others find a system for using — but not over-using — over-the-counter drugs with antihistamines that block the effects of chemicals that trigger the symptoms. Such drugs include Allergan, Claritin, and Benadryl. Still other people take decongestants such as Sudafed to reduce swelling in the nose and thereby relieve congestion. Some people also take prescription steroids.
The steps recommended here require dedication. Careful home cleaning and dog grooming necessitate a considerable amount of time. But they can really help take the misery out of bonding with a creature you love.
An allergy to one dog does not mean you will be allergic to all dogs, by the way. Reactions vary greatly between particular people and particular dogs. Another promising note: just as an allergy to a dog can first manifest itself after many months to a year, sometimes dog allergies disappear. The plaguing symptoms simply dissipate.