Pet Ownership and the Allergic Child

Americans are known for their love of household pets; approximately 50-65% of American households own pets. Dogs, cats, fish, hamsters, and guinea pigs are among the most popular household pets. Studies have shown that there are numerous benefits to be gained from pet ownership. Pets help improve the physical, mental, and emotional health of their owners regardless of their age. Specifically, pets may help relieve stress and depression, motivate people to be more active and social, foster a sense of responsibility and compassion in children, and may even improve cardiovascular health and lower blood pressure in older household members.

Despite the important benefits of pet ownership, for those children with allergic diseases such as allergic rhinitis and asthma, pet ownership may pose a significant health risk. Signs of potential pet allergy in children may include: runny nose, sneezing, itchy and watery eyes, rashes, hives, or asthma symptoms. These symptoms usually occur within 30 minutes or so after contact, but may take up to 8 – 12 hours to appear.

So, how do you determine if your pet is the reason for your child’s symptoms? An allergist can help to determine this by completing a detailed review of your child’s medical history along with a complete physical examination. Skin testing to allergens, and in some cases IgE blood testing is then performed to determine if specific IgE antibody to various pet allergens are present. If the child has asthma symptoms, pulmonary function testing may also be performed.

If pet allergen sensitivity is found to be the reason for your child’s symptoms, there are a variety of measures which can be implemented. The best, and most difficult, measure is removal of the pet from the home and limiting exposure to other people’s pets as much as possible. If removal of the pet is not feasible, other measures such as making your child’s bedroom a “pet-free zone” and keeping your pet outdoors as much as possible are helpful. Have your child wash hands and change clothes after playing with pets. Vacuuming and dusting frequently reduce pet dander in the home. Washing, and/or grooming your pet regularly will also help reduce dander concentrations. Use of HEPA filters in your heating/AC system or free-standing HEPA filters in bedrooms and living areas can also decrease allergen levels. Removal of carpeting and upholstered furniture is also helpful.

The question of purchasing a “hypoallergenic” pet often comes into play in households with allergic members. Such pets would be wonderful to have, however, they do not exist. The actual allergen in dogs is secreted through their skin glands in order to coat their fur, and for cats, the allergen is in their saliva and is transferred to their fur by licking. In dogs and cats, dander or dead skin cells, along with fur are shed with the attached allergens. However, it is believed that pets with shorter hair, or those who shed less, theoretically release less dander into the air and may be better pets for the allergic person. (Examples include: poodles, terriers, Devon Rex cats.) 

If altering the home environment does not control the pet-allergic child’s symptoms, your Allergist may suggest medications such as antihistamines, nasal steroids, decongestants, leukotriene inhibitors, and saline nasal irrigation. Asthma symptoms may require treatment with inhaled corticosteroids, combination inhalers, and bronchodilators. Finally, if avoidance and medication are ineffective, immunotherapy, or “allergy shots”,  may be recommended by your Allergist. With immunotherapy, very small and increasing doses of allergen are given on a weekly basis in order to “train” the immune system to tolerate the offending allergen. 

There are many benefits associated with pet ownership, and with careful planning and consideration, many pet-allergic children may be able to share in the joys of owning a pet. 

Angelina J. Lombardi, MD
Allergic Disease and Asthma Center

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