Pets and People

Pet Allergies 101

posted: 05/15/12
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Many animal lovers may find that the joy of pet ownership comes with a catch: irritating, uncomfortable allergy symptoms like red, itchy eyes or trouble breathing. If this describes your situation, you're not alone -- the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) estimates there are 60 million people in the United States who have allergies or asthma. Not even celebrities are immune -- iCarly's Miranda Cosgrove, singers Nelly Furtado and Alanis Morissette, and actress Molly Shannon also have to deal with these symptoms.

If you've only recently started having problems with allergies, you may wonder how exactly they develop. Generally, an allergic reaction will take place as a result of microscopic protein particles found in items such as pollen, food and dander. These particles make their way into the human body through being inhaled, ingested, injected or absorbed through the skin, and if they cause a reaction, bingo: That's an allergen. Many allergies are hereditary, but they can also manifest as a result of repeated exposure to a particular substance. Among the millions of allergy-prone people, 15 to 30 percent react specifically to cats and dogs, according to the AAFA.

Typical allergy symptoms range from relatively minor afflictions like watering eyes to more serious reactions such as anaphylactic shock, which can start with dizziness and loss of consciousness but may quickly lead to heart failure and even death. But don't let that information send you into a panic -- allergy symptoms aren't usually life threatening, but they can be difficult to deal with. Here's a sampling of what you might experience:

- Stuffy or runny nose

- Red, itchy eyes

- Coughing

- Excessive sneezing

- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

- Rashes and swelling

Sources of Pet Allergies Get ready for a hair-raising fact: Contrary to popular belief, people with pet allergies aren't actually allergic to fur. They're actually reacting to allergens found within pets' skin secretions, saliva or urine. For example, dogs' skin glands produce a substance intended to keep their coats in tip-top shape, but it carries an allergen that dries on their bodies and flakes off with dead skin, or dander. While this dander often gets caught up in the fur and becomes airborne when pets shed, it's not created within the fur itself. With cats, the allergy-inducing protein, known as Fel D1, is found in their saliva but transferred to their skin and fur through licking and grooming. There are, of course, other things such as dust and mold that can trigger symptoms similar to those seen with animal allergies, but a visit to the doctor or an allergist can help pinpoint the true cause. Treatment Options Is it possible for people with allergies to have a pet? Sure, if those people have relatively mild symptoms and don't mind a little sacrifice. Several organizations such as the AAFA and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) offer a number of suggestions for coping with, treating, and decreasing the severity of allergic reactions to pets. At the very least, making your bedroom a pet-free zone might help you get a better night's sleep. There are also a number of HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters and purifiers on the market that are either sold as a part of appliances, such as vacuums, or can be added to central air systems in homes. Brushing and bathing your pet on a regular basis also can help, and there are a number of medications on the market including nose sprays, pills and shots that are geared toward controlling allergy symptoms, too. Having pet allergies will probably never be a walk in the park, but a little preparation and planning may help keep those "Achoo!" moments under control.

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