What to do if you're allergic to your pets

According to one study from the University of British Columbia, nearly 80% of people who are allergic to pets refuse to give up their animals, preferring to endure their symptoms instead. Those who feel they have no choice but to part with their dogs or cats often end up surrendering them to already over-crowded shelters.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are steps you can take, both for yourself and your animal, that can help alleviate your allergic reactions without sacrificing your best friend’s love and companionship.

What’s really causing your allergies

First, find out if your animals are really the source of your allergic reactions. Nearly half of us suffer from allergies or one form or another, but we’re not all allergic to the same things. If you do develop allergies, it’s important to try and determine what it is that’s making your nose run and your eyes itch. Although animals are a culprit in approximately 15% of the population, they don’t top the list of triggers. In one-quarter of those who suffer from allergies, dust mites, ragweed and perennial rye are among the main causes. Cigarette smoke, smog, and other environmental pollutants are also common factors. “Environmental toxicities will make allergy symptoms worse,” says Dr. Autumn Drouin, a holistic vet who also runs a naturopathic practice for humans. It’s a good idea to investigate these possibilities first, before assuming it’s your dog or cat that’s making you sick. If possible, ask your doctor to test you specifically for allergies to animal dander.

Improve his coat health

Contrary to what a lot of people think, it’s an animal’s dander, not the hair itself, that causes allergic reactions in people. It therefore makes sense to enhance your companion’s skin and coat health so that less dander is produced. Excessive shedding and dander in your dog or car is not a sign of optimum health in any case, so improving the situation is as good for him as it is for you.

Start with a high quality, whole meat diet that’s low in grains and has no byproducts, artificial preservatives or other additives. Consider a raw meat diet, or a premium canned product. Remember that the skin is one of the main routes through with the body eliminates toxins, which means that a diet heavy in unhealthy, poor quality ingredients can lead to problems that exacerbate dander production. A good multivitamin is also a wise addition to the diet. Perhaps most important of all are essential fatty acids, a lack of which can cause dry skin and flaking. Try supplementing your animal’s diet with fish or flaxseed oil – these will give him the Omega 3 and 6 EFAs he needs for healthy, supple skin and hair. Remember to take it slowly when switching your animal’s diet, and consult a holistic vet for information on supplement dosages.

Regular grooming is also crucial. Brush your animal daily to help remove dead hair and dander. If you can’t do it yourself, delegate the task to another family member. Choose a well-ventilated area, preferably outdoors when the weather allows.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, bathing your animal once a week can reduce the allergens on his coat by up to 84%. Just be sure to use a gentle, natural product without any harsh detergents. The latter can actually worsen the problem by drying out your animal’s skin even more.

If you can’t have your companion bathed and brushed at home, have it done by a professional groomer. Look for someone who has a knowledge of holistic hair and skin care, and who can advise you on how to keep your animal’s coat in good condition between visits.

What else can I do?

  • You don’t need to rely on antihistamines to reduce allergy symptoms. A variety of natural alternatives can also help you feel better. “Some combination homeopathic remedies have an antihistamine-like effect and temporarily relieve allergy symptoms,” says Dr. Drouin. “Also part of my desensitization program are immune-supporting medicinal mushrooms like maitake and shitake, and adrenal-supporting herbal remedies such as black currant and licorice. Vitamin C and bioflavonoids also have antihistamine properties.” It’s important to work with a qualified naturopath to make sure you are getting the correct combinations and dosages of these remedies
  • Consider investing in a High Efficiency Particulate Air Filter (HEPA). These units are capable of removing almost all allergens from the air. Remember to replace the filters often.
  • The average person spends about one-third of his or her time in the bedroom. You can help reduce your symptoms by keeping your dog or cat out of the bedroom, or at least off the bed. Keeping him off sofas and other upholstered furnishings can also help. Be sure to provide him with his own pet bed, so he has someplace soft to sleep and doesn’t feel left out. Wash the bedding regularly.
  • Frequently clean your floors and upholstery, and regularly wash pillow covers and fabric window coverings. These items can all trap dander and dust.
  • If your budget allows, consider replacing carpeting with wood or tile flooring.
  • Keep heating ducts and air conditioner filters clean.
  • Make sure your home has proper ventilation. When the weather’s nice, open the windows for awhile each day to let the air circulate.
  • Wash your hands after petting your animal, or handling his toys or bedding.
  • Try an allergy-reducing product formulated to remove dander from an animal’s coat. Be sure to choose a non-toxic brand, since you will be applying it directly to your dog or cat. An example is Petal Cleanse (available through www.homeshopinternational.com). This is a clear, colorless liquid made from a balance of gentle cleansers and moisturizers containing quarternium salts, glycerin, amino acids, B vitamins, aloe vera gel, rosemary and lime flower extracts. Wiping it on the animal’s coat removes allergens and also moisturizes the hair to help reduce dander production.

Which breeds are best?

No dog is totally hypoallergenic, but according to the American Kennel Club, the following breeds are less likely to cause reactions in sensitive individuals than others:

  • Bedlington terrier
  • Bichon frise
  • Chinese crested
  • Irish water spaniel
  • Kerry blue terrier
  • Maltese
  • Poodles
  • Portuguese water dog
  • Schnauzer
  • Soft coated wheaten terrier
  • Xoloitzcuintli (Mexican hairless)

Can growing up with animals reduce allergies?

It seems a contradiction in terms, but recent research suggests that children who grow up with dogs or cats are less likely to develop allergies and asthma in adulthood than those who don’t have animals. Preliminary studies by the Henry Ford Health System and others have indicated that exposure to animals from infancy onward might actually help the body build up resistance to some allergens. Researchers are remaining cautious about their findings until further studies are done, but the early results are promising.


Ann Brightman is Managing Editor for Animal Wellness Magazine and Integrative Veterinary Care Journal. A lifelong animal lover, she has also been a writer and editor for over 25 years. Ann is a member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada and is also a Tai Chi instructor.