What To Do if You Have Pet Allergies

Living with a pet when you have allergies is hard, but it can be done.

If you could snap your fingers and make your allergies disappear, you'd probably do it in a second. But what if your pet is the cause of your watery eyes, sneezing, and runny nose? Suddenly that oh-so-simple decision becomes a much tougher call. 

For some, the psychological misery of giving up a pet may outweigh the everyday suffering of allergy symptoms. The problem starts with dander, one of the most stubborn and common allergens. 

Cats, dogs, and other furry or feathered pets produce dander. Consisting of microscopic, dandruff-like skin flakes and proteins from saliva and urine, that dander can trigger pet allergies and aggravate asthma. Asthma is a lung disease causing shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, or tight pain in the chest.

So, what can you do to tame your pet allergies or asthma symptoms while enjoying life with your furry best friend? Here's what you need to know about dealing with pet allergies.

Find a New Home for Your Pet

The best way to treat pet allergies is to remove pets from the home. Still, you may not want to give away your pet to a new home even after you discover pet allergies. It also depends on how severe your symptoms are and whether you have other family members who are allergic.

According to Andy Nish, MD, an allergy and immunology specialist with Northeast Georgia Physicians Group in Gainesville, GA, about 75% of his patients ignore his advice. Dr. Nish recalled patients writing on their intake paperwork before seeing them, "I have a cat and a dog, and I am not going to get rid of them."

"Some families can't fathom giving away their pet. It's almost like giving away one of their children," added Anne Miranowski, MD, allergist-immunologist in Fairfax, Va. "I see some children where exposure to their three cats is clearly making them sick, and the family insists on keeping all three cats."

Other measures will likely have consequences. So, you should weigh the possibility of more symptoms and medication, as well as worsening asthma, against the distress of seeing your furry pal pitter-patter out of your life forever.

And although there may be some breeds touted as better for people with allergies, there are no cats or dogs truly free from dander.

Make Sure Your Pet Is Causing Your Symptoms

Before you think about rehoming a pet, it's essential to first figure out whether you—or your children—are, in fact, allergic. Though it seems as if pet allergies should be obvious, they are sometimes harder to recognize than you think.

If your eyes start to swell and you sneeze uncontrollably every time you are near a cat, you probably have pet allergies. But some people with allergies or asthma who grow up around animals and interact with them daily may have subtle symptoms.

"A lot of times, people will say, 'My dog or cat doesn't bother me.' But when somebody is exposed to a pet day in and day out, they don't have the dramatic symptoms every time they see it," explained Dr. Nish. "It may be a more subtle and chronic inflammatory process, and they may not realize that the pet is causing them problems."

Other Causes of Allergies

Pets can be a trigger for people with allergies or asthma, but there are also other triggers. Substances other than pet dander that trigger allergy symptoms typically include:

  • Dust mites
  • Air pollution
  • Mold
  • Tobacco Smoke
  • Disinfectants
  • Pests (like rodents or cockroaches)

"There's no reason to consider removing a pet unless you can demonstrate that there is a sensitization to that type of animal," noted Gregory Diette, MD, professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. "One mistake I've seen [healthcare providers] make is to generally recommend that asthmatics not have cats, dogs, or other furred pets when they haven't done the allergy testing to prove whether there's an abnormal response to that type of animal." 

Get an Allergy Test

The easiest way to pinpoint a pet allergy is to visit an allergist and get a series of skin tests. A skin prick test (SPT) exposes the skin to small samples of possible allergens. The allergist will scratch the skin with a needle that contains the allergen being tested. And if you are sensitive to the allergen, your skin will turn red, swell, or itch within 15 minutes.

There are also blood tests to confirm pet allergies. However, blood tests are not the best diagnostic tool for pet allergies since the results can often produce a false positive.

But if an allergy test comes back positive, it's decision time: Should you find a new home for your pet, or are there other treatments to consider?

Separate the Pet and the Allergic Person

Suppose your family isn't willing to rehome your pet. In that case, the next best thing is to isolate your cat or dog from allergic family members as much as possible.

You can keep your pet outdoors or at least out of the bedrooms. Restricting the pet to the ground floor is a good strategy if you live in a multi-story home.

Taking some or all of those steps may not reduce allergen levels enough to impact symptoms. That's because allergens need to fall below a certain threshold to alleviate symptoms. And because pet dander spreads so readily, even quarantining a pet may not do the trick, according to Dr. Diette.

Pet dander is so pervasive that it can be found in homes that have never had pets, schools, shopping malls, and other public places. Therefore, don't expect those steps to completely eradicate dander. Still, limiting the pet's roaming area will help somewhat reduce the amount of allergy-causing dander.

Reduce the Amount of Dander

Though their usefulness is debated, other measures may further reduce pet dander. Those measures include covering furniture with slipcovers or blankets that can be washed. Room air cleaners equipped with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can also reduce pet dander by removing it from the air.

"In contrast to, say, dust mites, which are heavy and sink quickly to the ground, both cat and dog dander are light and fluffy allergens, and they stay afloat for hours," explained Dr. Miranowski. "HEPA filters can really remove some of that dander from the air."

Remove the Carpet

Replacing carpets with tile or wood floors is beneficial since rugs tend to trap pet dander. 

Additionally, frequent vacuuming may actually be counterproductive. That's because vacuuming tends to stir up allergens without necessarily removing them. And it can actually increase the number of airborne allergens, even when newer vacuums containing HEPA filters are used.

Wash the Pet and Your Hands

It can help to bathe your pet weekly to reduce airborne allergens. Similarly, if you have pet allergies and come into contact with a furry friend, it is a good idea to wash your hands and face after you play with the pet or its belongings.

Take Medication

Deciding not to give up a pet may have some consequences. For example, you will probably need to make space in your medicine cabinet.

"If people keep the pet, they will almost always need more medication to control their symptoms," explained Dr. Miranowski. That could include taking or upping the dosage of oral antihistamines and intranasal steroids.

And people with asthma may require higher doses of inhaled corticosteroids or the addition of other medicines, such as leukotriene inhibitors. In some cases, people may decide to get allergy shots that boost immunity to the allergen. That strategy can be effective, according to Dr. Nish.

A Quick Review

Ultimately, individuals and families need to weigh the potential health consequences of keeping a pet and the emotional damage that inevitably comes with losing a furry companion. 

That decision differs for everyone, depending on how severe their symptoms are and how important their pet is to their quality of life. After all, as Dr. Diette pointed out, "health" doesn't refer only to physical symptoms.

"It's worth considering the big picture around health and happiness and well-being," said Dr. Diette. "I haven't yet seen a study that takes into account the positive benefits of pet ownership. The average person, on balance, won't necessarily be happier not having the companionship of a cat or dog."

Was this page helpful?
5 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Pet allergens.

  2. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Asthma.

  3. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Pet allergy: Are you allergic to dogs, cats, or other animals?

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Asthma.

  5. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Allergy diagnosis.

Related Articles