No Such Thing as a ‘Hypoallergenic’ Dog

How to tamp down your risk of an allergic reaction to your pet.


We recently ran across this post on social media: “We’re thinking of getting a bichon frise, a cavalier King Charles spaniel, or a miniature poodle and need recommendations on how hypoallergenic each kind is. Our family is very allergic to almost all breeds of dogs.”

In fact, there’s no way to rate how likely any dog is to trigger the itching, watery eyes, sneezing, rashes, and other signs of an allergic reaction in a person, even though the Internet is brimming with lists of so-called hypoallergenic dogs. Not the shape of a dog’s hair (curly versus straight), the amount of hair, the amount of shedding, the size of the dog, or any other feature offers a guarantee. That’s because no matter what kind of dog you own, the number of canine allergens in your home will be roughly
the same.

A study in the American Journal of Rhinology and Allergy made the point a number of years ago when it looked at 173 homes to find the amounts of the most common dog allergen. The findings were that there was no difference in allergen levels between homes, even with all the differences in dog breeds owned.

It’s not about the hair

It stands to reason that the type of hair and the amount of hair your dog has is not a factor in the concentration of allergens. That’s because dog allergens come from a pet’s skin cells, not her hair cells. And all dogs slough off skin cells, known as dander. There’s constant turnover. Whether or not a dog sheds is beside the point.

It’s true that skin cells can make their way into a dog’s hair, so theoretically, a dog who sheds a lot could cause more of an allergic reaction than non-shedders (such as curly-haired dogs). In addition, big dogs are obviously going to shed more skin cells than little ones. But you can’t go by that as a surefire bet against allergic reactions in your home. There are some people for whom just a tiny amount of a dog’s dander will trigger an allergic reaction (which is usually no more than annoying but in some cases can lead to wheezing, an exacerbation of asthma, or other serious complications). And there’s no way to tell ahead of time who will be affected by which dog.

Making matters more complicated still is that someone with a tendency toward allergies might not build up antibodies to a dog’s dander until a year after the dog has come to live in their home. (On the plus side, allergies can sometimes vanish, too.)

The bottom line: If someone in your home is prone to airborne allergies — allergies in which the offending substance is breathed in rather than ingested — you cannot be assured that the person won’t have an allergic reaction to a dog. But you can at least take steps to try to minimize the risk, or at least minimize the allergy’s intensity.

Ratcheting down dog allergy risk

While some dogs are never going to “match” with some people’s immune systems no matter what, taking these measures is certainly worth a try — and can potentially make an untenable situation workable.

  1.  Keep the dog out of the allergic person’s bedroom — always. (People with airborne allergies are generally more prone to dog allergies.)
  2.  Always wash your hands after petting the dog so the pet’s skin cells won’t make it onto objects you touch — and then get touched by the allergy sufferer.
  3.  Groom your dog religiously, removing loose hair. If you can do so outside, so much the better.
  4.  Consider bathing your dog twice a week. This has been shown scientifically to remove significant amounts of allergens from pets.
  5.  Vacuum up shed hair every single day, including on drapes and cushions. And wash your dog’s bedding regularly. In addition, steam clean carpets and rugs frequently.
  6.  Add an air cleaner with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter to central heating and air conditioning. It can help remove pet allergens from the air.

Pet Allergies on the Rise

Since the 1950s, the incidence of allergies to dogs (and cats) has increased substantially in industrialized countries such as ours — and not just because more people now have pets. Houses built “tighter” and improvements in indoor climate control have reduced air exchanged with the outdoor environment. Thus, allergens in people’s houses stay put in a way they didn’t used to. There’s also now more upholstered furniture and wall-to-wall carpeting than there used to be. Both trap allergens.


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