Making the decision to become a pet parent puts you in the same boat as nearly 60 percent of all households in the United States, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association -- but what if you're one of the many people who struggle with pet allergies, too? Even if you haven't had a reaction in the past, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) reports that allergies, including those to pets, can creep up later in life, and discovering that this condition exists after you've already brought home your new friend is certainly less than ideal.
There are, however, some things you can do to find out whether you're allergic to pets before you actually get one. Try the following steps before you dive headfirst into the world of pet ownership.
Test the Waters
First, consider whether you already have any other type of allergies, since people who do are more prone to developing others. Either way, it's a good idea to set up a trial run by spending some time in the home of a friend or family member who already has a pet. Make sure, however, that the pet you're spending time with is similar to the type you want to get, since according to the AAFA, it's entirely possible to be allergic to dogs but not cats or vice versa. You could even ask whether you can borrow the animal for a sleepover in your own home to see how you react to a 24-hour period of exposure and if you have any problems with dander that's left around your house. If no one in your immediate circle of contacts has a pet similar to the one you want, another option would be to call your local animal shelter and ask if you can volunteer, perhaps during an adoption fair, and get some pet exposure that way.
Allergic reactions to pets can either happen immediately if your allergy is strong or take a bit longer to manifest if it's less severe, so give it at least a few days before you jump to any conclusions. Symptoms could include sneezing, watery or itchy eyes, hives, coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing, or even an asthma attack (which tends to be more common with cat allergies). If you notice any of these signs, chances are your body is reacting to the presence of allergens -- small proteins which come from cats' or dogs' saliva, urine or skin secretions, then dry on their skin and shed off as dander.
Ask the Experts
The best way to confirm that you have a pet allergy is by making an appointment with an allergist, who can help pinpoint your symptoms' exact trigger and make a professional diagnosis. The doctor will take in your medical history and then usually conduct one of several tests, such as a skin, blood or allergen-specific antibody test.
If the test comes back positive, your allergist may advise against pet ownership entirely. Of course, many people in this situation throw caution to the wind and get a pet anyway. For those whose allergies are on the mild side, this can prove to be manageable, especially if you follow some best practices, such as keeping some areas of your home pet-free and cleaning your house on a regular basis to get rid of pet dander. There are also a number of treatments available, including nose sprays and oral medications that contain antihistamines, which can provide additional relief.
However, for those with more extreme symptoms, it's best to follow doctor's orders or seek out pets that don't create dander, such as exotic fish or birds. These options may not seem as cute or cuddly as a dog or cat, but then again, they could be much easier on your health -- a lovable quality in itself.