6 Common myths about pet allergies

An estimated 10 to 20 percent of the worldwide population – around 1.5 billion people – is affected by pet allergies.1 Yet pet ownership is reported to be growing dramatically around the world.2

According to surveys by The American Pet Products Association (APPA) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), anywhere from 57 to 62 percent of American households have at least one pet.3 Yet an estimated 31 million Americans are allergic to animals, including up to 30 percent of those who have asthma.

For these people, many allergic symptoms occur whenever they are exposed to common household pets, including:4

  • congestion
  • sneezing
  • runny nose
  • red, itchy, or watery eyes
  • coughing
  • rash or hives

It helps to understand how pets can trigger allergies and what steps can help protect you. Below are 6 common misconceptions about pet allergies. By knowing the truth about these myths, you can take action to live comfortably with the pets in your life.

#1: Only pet hair causes allergies

Verdict: Not true.

Pet hair alone does not cause allergies – hair often carries saliva, chemicals from urine like urea and ammonia, and other pet proteins. Allergic reactions to pets are actually caused by these components of pet dander like microscopic skin flakes, saliva, and urine.5

The hyperresponsive immune systems of those with allergies attack these otherwise harmless substances with the overproduction of immune cells called immunoglobulins (IgE). These cells stimulate inflammatory responses to help rid the body of the allergen.6 This is what triggers such frustrating symptoms like sneezing, itching, and so on.

Animals with more fur are more likely to carry other allergens, such as pet dander and dust, because of the larger surface area of hair that these allergens can adhere to.7

If you have a pet, handle pet hair carefully and clean household dust with caution, as it may contain pet dander that can trigger allergic reactions.

Consider wearing a mask when you clean areas frequented by your pets to help prevent dander from entering your airways and triggering allergy symptoms.

Airborne allergies infographic

#2: Continuous exposure to animals desensitizes you to them

Verdict: Not only is this not true, but in some cases the opposite is true.

If you have a confirmed allergy to animals, whether you are a child or adult, it usually will not get better through increasing exposure. In fact, it may get worse. That’s according to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy.8

However, studies have confirmed that early childhood exposure to cats, dogs, and other animals may lower the risk of developing allergic reactions later in life.

A 2020 study in Pediatric Allergy and Immunology of 3,781 Finnish children found that exposure to dogs or cats early in life reduced the risk of developing asthma or skin reactions to allergens by age five.9

However, it’s worth noting that an earlier 2015 study in the same journal suggested that children between one and four years old may experience more severe allergy symptoms when exposed to a pet in the home.10 This indicates that while pet allergy symptoms may be more acute earlier in life, pet exposure may have longer-term benefits in preventing more severe allergy symptoms.

Other previous studies also confirm this.

In a 2011 study of over 8,000 European children, researchers found that children continuously exposed to cats from the time they were one year old were 67 percent less likely than others to develop allergic asthma.11
Another 2018 study in PLOS One of over 1,000 Swedish children also found that children with pets in the home growing up saw their risk of allergies drop from 49 percent (if they had no pets at all) to almost zero (if they had five or more pets).12

#3: Hypoallergenic dogs/cats/etc. prevent allergy problems

Verdict: Not true.

All cat or dog breeds produce dander. However, some breeds are believed to be better for allergy sufferers than other breeds.

Typically the best breeds are those that shed the least fur and/or are the most frequently bathed. Smaller dogs also produce less saliva than do bigger dogs.13

The American Kennel Club recommends breeds that produce the least dander for allergy sufferers.14 Those breeds include:

  • poodles
  • terriers
  • schnauzers
  • Bichons Frises

#4: Small animals don’t trigger allergies

Verdict: Wrong.

Hamsters, guinea pigs, birds, and other warm-blooded mammals can also trigger asthma and allergies in people with allergies to animal dander. A 2005 study in Clinical and Molecular Allergy found that people with IgE hypersensitivity to pet dander had similar reactions to dander from guinea pigs.15

Birds are also a major problem for many allergy sufferers, as birds release dander into the air through activities such as cleaning their feathers, flapping their wings, and flying.16

If you are allergic to animals but still want a pet, consider animals without dander, such as:

  • fish
  • turtles
  • other reptiles and amphibians

#5: Outside the home, you shouldn’t have pet allergies

Verdict: Not necessarily.

Because of their microscopic size and jagged shape, pet allergens easily stick to clothing and other fabrics and are carried to other locations.

Animal dander in sufficient levels to cause allergies can also be found in many public places such as the workplace, classrooms, and hospitals.

Those with severe allergies also may want to avoid the homes of family and friends who have the type of pet that irritates their allergies.

#6: Air purifiers help with pet allergies

Verdict: It depends on the air purifier.

Only a high-performance air purifier can help. Some allergy sufferers report that small, low quality air cleaners make little or no difference at all.

However, many allergy sufferers report that running a high-efficiency air purifier, in combination with improved cleaning and exposure reduction methods, has reduced or completely eliminated their allergic reactions to pets in their homes.

The number one air cleaning solution for your home.

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