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What are pet allergies?
A pet allergy is an immune reaction to animal dander (skin flakes), saliva, urine, or feces. (Animal fur or hair itself isn't much of an allergen, but it can trap pollen, dust, mold, and other allergens.) When a child with pet allergies breathes in dander or comes in contact with saliva or droppings, his immune system goes on alert and releases histamine and over 40 other chemicals to fight off the allergen.
Histamine inflames the nose and airways, and the chemicals may cause the following well-known allergy symptoms: runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing, and symptoms of asthma, like coughing or wheezing. In fact, most asthma begins in early childhood and can be triggered by animals. If the allergen comes in contact with your preschooler's skin, he may get a rash or hives.
Every kind of animal — including dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, and especially cats — can cause a reaction in a child who is allergic.
How can I tell whether my child is allergic to our pet?
Year-round (as opposed to seasonal) symptoms such as itchy, watery eyes, a rash, a runny nose, sneezing, coughing, or wheezing indoors are all signs of an allergy to dust mites, mold, or a pet. The symptoms may even occur when your preschooler isn't in close contact with the animal, since the allergen can be found throughout the indoor environment. It will take a little work to find out whether it's your pet or something else that's the problem.
Unfortunately, your child may still have a reaction to your pet when he's away from home. "With chronic exposure, symptoms, once triggered, can occur for days after the exposure is removed," says allergist James L. Sublett, vice chairman of the indoor allergens committee of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI). "Even more important, it's likely the allergen will be transported to the new environment on clothing and other items."
Removing your dog or cat from the house for a test period won't tell you much, since there may be enough pet dander in your home to trigger your child's allergies even when your pet isn't around. So it might take an extended stay away from home for you to detect that your child is better off without your pet.
If you determine that your pet is causing your preschooler's symptoms, you'll probably need to find Fido a new home. If you're still not sure, you may want to take your preschooler to an allergist to get help with more parts of the puzzle.
How does an allergist tell what my preschooler is allergic to?
To determine allergy triggers, an allergist may conduct a skin test, in which she pricks the surface of the skin with a small amount of liquid allergen. After 15 to 20 minutes, the allergist looks for bumps or welts, like small mosquito bites, that indicate an allergy.
Skin-prick testing is very sensitive and can be interpreted by a specially trained board-certified allergist to help you decide whether you need to remove the pet from your home and do a thorough cleaning. Even then, it can take months for allergen levels in your home to drop enough to make a difference.
Can I keep my preschooler from developing an allergy to our pet in the first place?
Probably not, especially if you or your partner has allergies. Your child would then be genetically predisposed to develop some sort of allergy himself, though perhaps not the same kind as yours.
If you'd like to have a pet but suspect your child is prone to allergies, consider waiting until he's at least 6 years old. Allergy symptoms are often less severe in an older child. A pet allergy might cause your child to wheeze when he's 4 or 5 years old, for example, while it might only give him a slight cough when he's 8.
Keep in mind that if you do get a pet, your child may not show allergic signs right away. It can take several months of exposure before an allergic child develops symptoms in response to a new pet.
Are any pets less allergenic than others?
Some allergists and veterinarians say yes; others disagree. There doesn't seem to be any hard and fast evidence that some breeds of dogs are more or less allergenic than others. Many people mistakenly believe that short-haired dogs like poodles are less allergenic than long-haired breeds. But it's the animal's dander, not the hair or fur, that causes the reaction.
There is general agreement that cats are about equally allergenic no matter what their breed. Their allergens are harder to escape than dog allergens — cat dander is smaller and stickier than dog dander, which means it can travel airborne for great distances and stick to a surface for a longer time. And because cats are always licking their fur, a child has a good chance of coming into contact with cat saliva, another allergen.
Even hamsters, gerbils, and other rodents are not recommended as pets for allergic children, who can develop an allergy to their urine and droppings. When caged, these animals can't really avoid stepping in their own urine or feces, which can cause a reaction when they come in contact with a child's skin.
Reptiles aren't a good choice for a child, either, because they can carry Salmonella. This type of bacteria can cause serious diarrhea and dehydration, and even be fatal in young children if not treated. If you do opt for a reptile, follow these safety tips:
- Wash your hands after touching the animal.
- Never kiss the pet.
- Prepare your own food away from the reptile.
- Keep the animal in a cage, away from the kitchen or dining room.
- An adult should clean the cage daily.
Some birds — especially those in the parrot and parakeet family — and their droppings can cause a uniquely severe reaction known as hypersensitivity pneumonitis (also called bird-fancier's lung). Symptoms include a slowly progressive shortness of breath, loss of energy, low fever, slow weight gain, and fatigue. The disorder can scar the lung tissue and even be fatal, according to the ACAAI.
If the condition hasn't progressed too far, you can reverse the symptoms by removing the bird from the home and doing a thorough housecleaning. Although this condition is extremely rare in children — only 61 cases have been reported in the United States in the past century — it can be fatal, so allergists advise that parents who have a bird in the home monitor their child for symptoms.
If your preschooler can't tolerate animals with fur and still wants a pet, you might try to interest him in fish.
What's the best way to treat pet allergies?
It depends on the type of reaction your child has. For a mild respiratory reaction, a saline nasal rinse may be sufficient. For more constant or bothersome symptoms, you'll want to talk with your child's doctor about prescribing an appropriate allergy medicine to help his symptoms. If the symptoms persist, she can refer you to an allergist.
Allergy shots that target specific allergens may be a good option if your child has symptoms even after you've removed the offending pet and tried medications. There are new allergy extracts that include the specific cat allergen FeID1, for example.
Some studies show that the use of allergy shots in children may not only provide relief for the immediate problem but also prevent more severe allergy symptoms in the future, says Sublett. If you think your preschooler would benefit from allergy shots, you'll want to take him to a board-certified allergist who can evaluate his condition and decide whether the shots would be helpful.
Can we do anything to minimize exposure to pet allergens?
Although it's much easier to avoid pet dander than it is to avoid pollen or dust mites, some animal allergens, such as cat dander, can be very difficult to keep at bay. The ACAAI recommends taking the following steps:
- Keep your pet out of the bedrooms at all times and restricted to a few rooms in the house, preferably uncarpeted areas like the kitchen.
- Since airborne allergens can be circulated by a home's forced-air heating and air-conditioning system, whole house filtration may reduce circulating animal allergens in the air. Install a high-efficiency media filter with a MERV rating of 12 in the furnace and air-conditioning unit. Leave the fan on to create a whole-house air filter that removes particles that may cause allergies. Change the filter every three months (with the change of the seasons) to keep the air in your home cleaner year-round.
- Place the litter box away from the living area of the home.
- Do a thorough cleaning. Furniture, carpets, drapes, and even walls can trap pet dander. Consider removing your carpets (they can trap allergens for up to six months) and replacing them with smooth flooring such as linoleum or hardwood, at least in your child's bedroom. One study found that simply dry dusting with a dust cloth was an effective way to remove allergens from a smooth, hard surface.
- Invest in a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA (high-energy particulate air) filter, which will trap not only animal dander but also dust mites and cockroach droppings. Wear an N95-rated filter mask while cleaning or vacuuming to reduce your own exposure, and never vacuum while your child is in the room. Keep in mind that it takes nearly two hours for particles stirred up by cleaning to settle back down.
- Keep your pets off the furniture. Nothing traps animal dander like upholstery. If this is impossible, or if your dog or cat has a favorite spot that you don't have the heart to declare off-limits, try covering that chair or sofa with a removable cloth that you can wash easily.
- Keep your pet out of your child's bedroom. Consider removing any carpeting or heavy drapes from your child's room, and scale back the stuffed animal collection. Limit his stuffed sleeping buddies to one or two, and launder them (as well as his bedding) once a week in water that is at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Encase the mattress and pillows in an allergen-proof covering.
- Change your child's clothes after he plays with your pet. (If you can't wash his clothes right then, put them in a separate hamper.) Have your preschooler wash his hands right away. If you can, give him a bath immediately. If not, make sure he gets a bath at night and wash his hair before going to bed. You don't want him tracking allergens into his bedroom.