Pets can have a special place in a family’s dynamic—especially when they’ve been with you before your children. But what do you do when your child seems to be displaying allergy symptoms toward your beloved fur baby?
Over 68 percent of households in the US have at least one pet in their house— the most common being cats and dogs. South Dakota ranks fourth on a national level for cat ownership, but over 42 percent of households have dogs. However, along with the high statistics of pet ownership, pet allergies are also common. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, 15 to 30 percent of all Americans are affected. Although allergies to cats are about twice as common, allergic reactions to dogs tend to be more severe. This is especially the case in those with asthma.
“In our practice, positive skin testing to cat and dog are fairly common and usually occur along with other positive responses to grasses, weeds, trees, and/or pollen,” said Ronald M. Guy, MD at West River Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic.
“Cat sensitivity is about twice as common as dog sensitivity. About 10 percent of the patients we see with allergic rhinitis and asthma have cat allergy.”
An allergic reaction occurs when a person’s immune system reacts abnormally to the usually harmless proteins. Different breeds produce different dander, so it’s possible to be more allergic to some dogs or cats than others.
The allergen eventually finds its way into the animal’s fur. From there, it collects in carpets, on clothing, on walls, and between couch cushions. The pet hair itself is not an allergen, but the hair can hold dust and dander. When a child with pet allergies breathes in dander, or comes in contact with saliva or droppings, their immune system goes on alert and releases histamine and other chemicals to fight off the allergen.
Histamine inflames the nose and airways, and the chemicals may cause the following well-known allergy symptoms: runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing, and symptoms of asthma, like coughing or wheezing.
If you’re familiar with allergies, you know they aren’t the most comfortable to deal with. If your child is experiencing any of these symptoms, it is best to contact your doctor and get them tested.
To determine allergy triggers, an allergist may conduct a skin test, in which they prick the surface of the skin with a small amount of liquid allergen. After 15 to 20 minutes, the allergist looks for bumps or welts, like small mosquito bites, that indicate an allergy. Another test doctors may conduct is a blood test. This only requires one needle stick to draw the blood, but can require a follow-up visit to formulate a treatment plan after results have been read.
“We can usually do skin testing of patients starting at about four years old,” said Dr. Guy. “Blood testing can be done down to age one.
If your child tests positive for pet allergies, don’t fret! You have multiple options that can keep Fido or Fluffy at home. The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology recommends taking the following steps:
Keep your pet out of bedrooms at all times and restricted to a few rooms in the house, preferably uncarpeted areas like the kitchen.
Since airborne allergens can be circulated by a home’s forced-air heating and air-conditioning system, whole house filtration may reduce circulating animal allergens in the air. Install a high-efficiency media filter with a MERV rating of 12 in the furnace and air-conditioning unit. Leave the fan on to create a whole-house air filter that removes particles that may cause allergies. Change the filter every three months (with the change of the seasons) to keep the air in your home cleaner year-round.
Place the litter box away from the living area of the home.
Do a thorough cleaning. Furniture, carpets, drapes, and even walls can trap pet dander. Consider removing your carpets (they can trap allergens for up to six months) and replacing them with smooth flooring such as linoleum or hardwood, at least in your child’s bedroom. One study found that simply dry dusting with a dust cloth was an effective way to remove allergens from a smooth, hard surface.
Invest in a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA (high-energy particulate air) filter, which will trap not only animal dander but also dust mites and cockroach droppings. Wear an N95-rated filter mask while cleaning or vacuuming to reduce your own exposure, and never vacuum while your baby is in the room. Keep in mind that it takes nearly two hours for particles stirred up by cleaning to settle back down.
Keep your pets off the furniture. Nothing traps animal dander like upholstery. If this is impossible, or if your dog or cat has a favorite spot that you don’t have the heart to declare off-limits, try covering that chair or sofa with a removable cloth that you can wash easily.
Keep your pet out of your baby’s bedroom. Consider removing any carpeting or heavy drapes from your baby’s room, and scale back the stuffed animal collection. Launder bedding once a week, and encase the mattress and pillows in an allergen-proof covering.
Change your baby’s clothes after they play with your pet. (If you can’t wash their clothes right then, put them in a separate hamper.) Wash your child’s hands right away, and make sure they get a bath at night—wash their hair before going to bed. This helps prevent you from tracking allergens into their bedroom.
Keep your pet washed and groomed regularly to keep dander at bay.
When dealing with more severe reactions of allergies to pets, medications may be another option worth exploring. Many of these medications are available over-the-counter at your local drugstore. Options range from antihistamines such as Zyrtec, Allegra, Claritin and Benadryl. Intranasal corticosteroids such as Flonase and Nasacort, work by reducing the inflammation in the nose and airway passages.
“Antihistamines work by blocking the histamine receptors which are triggered by the allergen and cause symptoms of runny nose, itchy eyes and congestion,” explained Dr. Guy. “Intranasal corticosteroids work by reducing the inflammation in the nose and airway passages.”
Allergy immunotherapy (SCIT – Subcutaneous Immunotherapy) is another treatment option offered in the physician’s office. This includes a regimen of weekly shots to build your immunity against the allergens that disrupt your living.
“A combination of allergy medication and environmental changes can oftentimes help control pet allergies making it unnecessary to remove the family pet from the home,” said Dr. Guy.
“In almost all cases, the physical and emotional benefits pets can offer children and adults far outweigh the problems allergies might cause.”
It can be a rollercoaster of emotions when introducing your little one to your fur baby. But, before jumping to the extremes of re-homing your animal, talk to your doctor about pet allergies, and explore the options available to your family.
written by Jenna Carda photos by Jesse Brown Nelson