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6 Tips for Living with Pet Allergies

The Truth About Hypoallergenic Dogs

Pets bring joy and unconditional love to our lives, but for the 20 percent of the population that suffers from allergies to dogs and cats, our furry friends also bring sneezing, watery eyes, and itchy rashes. 

People with pet allergies have hyper-sensitive immune systems that overreact to otherwise harmless proteins in the pet’s urine, saliva, or dander (dead skin cells). While pet hair itself is not an allergen, it can collect dander, urine, and saliva. The pet’s haircoat can also carry environmental allergens like dust and pollen.

Contrary to popular belief, certain breeds of dogs are not hypoallergenic. This myth is built on the false pretense that so-called hypoallergenic breeds (such as poodles or the bichon frise) do not shed hair, and therefore shed fewer allergens. 

A 2012 study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology set out to determine whether or not hypoallergenic breeds of dogs, such as poodles, actually produced less of the major canine allergen, Can f1. The researchers found that the amount of Can f1 found in hair and coat samples was actually highest in the breeds considered hypoallergenic. No differences in airborne levels of the allergens were found between breeds.

What about the always-popular doodle? Doodles are a cross between a poodle and another breed, often a Labrador or golden retriever. Due to the variations in the coat of the doodles, from wiry to soft fleece, it is very hard to predict what sort of coat that cute fluffy pup will ultimately end up with. There are massive variations within a litter, depending on which genes they inherit from each parent. A doodle may not shed much (like a poodle), or he may shed a great deal (like a Lab). In any case, these mixed-breed dogs should not be considered a safe alternative for people suffering from severe canine allergies. A truly allergen-free dog or cat does not exist.

Dogs and cats are not the only animals we can be allergic to. Other examples of common pets that can prompt an immune response include guinea pigs, ferrets, and rabbits. What is a pet-loving family to do? Consider fur- and feather-free companions such as lizards, fish, and turtles. 

For those families who already have a dog or cat in the house, unfortunately, removing the pet from the home is often the best remedy. However, if you still want to keep your pet, there may be some strategies to reduce allergen exposure.

Avoid carpet and install hardwood floors. 

Carpet fibers can easily trap dander and other allergen particles, especially high-pile carpeting. For homes with carpet, vacuum often using a machine equipped with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter and be sure to wear a mask while vacuuming. Steam-clean the carpet often.  On hard floors (like tile, laminate, or wood), use a high-quality steam cleaner and consider a robot vacuum that can clean the floors when you are away.

Designate the bedroom as a no-pet zone. 

Since you spend a third of every day in the bedroom, it’s key to keep it as free of pet dander as possible. Keep the bedroom door closed at all times and clean the bedroom aggressively. Wash linens often and consider covering pillows and mattresses with protective encasing. 

Invest in a high-quality air cleaner. 

The Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America (AAFA) recommends running an air cleaner at least four hours per day. Visit for a list of AAFA-approved products.

Bathe your pets often. 

Allergists agree that keeping a dog clean will help temporarily reduce the allergen load, both in terms of pet dander and other environmental allergens that might collect on the coat, but overall, the benefit is short-lived. For dogs, you can bathe as often as weekly if you use the correct shampoo. Look for products that are soap-free and moisturizing; oatmeal-based shampoos can be too drying. Your veterinarian can make recommendations, or consider products such as Dechra DermaLyte or The Barker Premium Pet Shampoo. 

Change your clothes. 

Change your clothes and wash your hands after prolonged exposure with an animal to help lessen the severity of allergic reactions.

Consider trying allergy medication or immunotherapy. 

Speak with your doctor or allergist about over-the-counter antihistamines. Often, finding the right oral antihistamine can be trial and error. In more severe cases, you might try immunotherapy (a regimen of allergy shots). 

Pets are a wonderful addition to any family, but don’t be fooled by claims of hypoallergenic cats and dogs. Instead, focus on making lifestyle changes and using medication, if needed, to enjoy life with your furry friends. 

Photo: JGabi Stickler

Angela Kargus, DVM, practices at Rutland and Mechanicsville Animal Hospitals in Richmond’s East End. She shares her home with three crazy spaniels and a Norwegian forest cat.
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