Pets and People

Bird Feather Allergies

posted: 05/15/12
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Out in the wild, birds really make an impact. They help farmers by consuming harmful insects and keeping rodent populations in check; some even play a role in pollinating plants. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. But to many people, these feathery creatures are simply beloved companions. In fact, according to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), 6 million birds are kept as pets in the United States alone. Sometimes, these domestic birds and their feathers can also make a big impact -- a not-so-positive one -- by triggering allergies in members of your household.

But this doesn't have to be completely bad news for allergy-prone bird lovers. With the help of some preventive measures and preemptive steps, it's still possible to keep a bird in your home by minimizing allergic reactions. However, before you can truly learn how to keep feather allergies at bay, it's important to first understand what causes them.

Understanding Feather Allergies

Surprising as it may be, feathers themselves are not an incredibly strong source of allergens; reactions to their presence have more to do with dander -- a kind of dust that results when feather shafts break down -- or dust mites, which both have a tendency to collect within feathers. These allergens can spread when birds become active, such as when they flutter their wings or preen. However, it's also important to note that allergens can live within birds' fecal matter as well, and pet owners can easily come in contact with that while doing routine tasks such as cage cleaning.

The most common reaction that someone may experience in the presence of feathers is allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever. Other possible feather allergy symptoms can include sneezing, coughing, sore throat, postnasal drip, watery and itchy eyes, and even black circles under the eyes, which are known as allergic shiners. In extreme cases, reactions can escalate to breathing difficulties, reduced lung capacity and weight loss. If your reactions are that severe, you should probably avoid contact with birds all together.

If you suspect you have a feather allergy, schedule an appointment with a physician who can confirm the condition. A doctor usually does this through a multi-step process of taking a complete medical history, conducting an exam, and administering allergy skin tests, such as a radioallergosorbent test, which can detect the presence of allergy-specific immunoglobulin E (IgE) in the bloodstream. When you know for sure that you're allergic to your pet bird, that's when you can start taking steps to combat the problem.

Living with Feather Allergies

As is the case with cats and dogs, unfortunately there's no such thing as a totally hypoallergenic bird. Ultimately, if you're allergic to feathers, the best thing you can do is keep your distance from them entirely, whether they're on a pet bird or stuffed into a pillow. But if you're an allergy-prone pet lover and have your heart set on having feathery friends to call their own, it's sometimes possible -- if your allergies are relatively mild -- to manage your symptoms with over-the-counter remedies such as antihistamines, decongestants and corticosteroids. It may also help to adopt some of these best practices:

- After handling a bird, don't touch your eyes, nose or mouth until you can wash your hands thoroughly.

- Keep your bird's cage out of your bedroom.

- Regularly clean your home's walls, floors and furniture, particularly in the room where the bird's cage resides.

- Use a vacuum with HEPA filter to further eradicate dander and dust mites in your home.

- Keep bird cages clean, and give this chore to someone in your household who doesn't have allergies.

Though these relatively simple steps won't completely eliminate allergic reactions to feathers, they may help create an environment where you can breathe easier and live more comfortably with birds you love.

Sources

Allergy Clinic UK. "Pets and Animals." 06/24/2010. http://www.allergyclinic.co.uk/animals.htm

American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI). "Pet Allergies." 06/24/2010. http://www.acaai.org/patients/resources/allergies/Pages/pet-allergy.aspx

American Pet Products Association (APPA). "Industry Statistic & Trends." 06/24/2010. http://www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp

HowStuffWorks.com. "Birds." HowStuffWorks. April 2008. http://animals.howstuffworks.com/birds/bird-info.htm

GulfMD. "Bird Allergies." GulfMD.com. http://www.gulfmd.com/Immunology%20-%20asthma%20&%20allergy/birdallergies.asp?id=18

Kalstone, Shirlee. Allergic to Pets?: The Breakthrough Guide to Living with Animals You Love. Random House Publishing, January 2006.

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