Pet allergy can show on your skin or you may sneeze a lot. Know the symptoms of pet allergy and what to do about it.

Anyone who has a pet at home will tell you that these animals take no time in becoming the life of the house! Whether you’re a cat momma or your dog’s best friend, if you are allergic to them, it could be a little problematic. A scratch by your pet can leave you with itchy skin. Sometimes, just petting them or being near them can make you sneeze or cough a lot. These are all symptoms of pet allergy, which is connected to the proteins found in animals. Does that mean you cannot live with your pet? Read on to know everything about pet allergy and if living with them is possible or not.

What is pet allergy?

Cuddling your pet has benefits, but your furry friend can be the reason behind your allergy too. Pet allergy is an allergic reaction that is generally triggered by exposure to proteins found in the saliva, urine, or dander (dead skin flakes) of animals like cats, dogs, birds, and rodents, says internal medicine expert Dr P Venkata Krishnan. When susceptible people come into contact with these allergens, their immune system mistakenly identifies them as harmful and releases chemicals like histamine to combat them. This chemical causes many of the symptoms of allergies, including sneezing.

A woman with pet allergy playing with her dog
Sneezing is one of the symptoms of pet allergy. Image courtesy: Freepik

Pet allergy is a growing public health concern, as allergies to cats and dogs affect 10 to 20 percent of the population in the world, according to a 2018 study published in the Allergy Asthma and Immunology Research.

What are the symptoms of pet allergy?

The symptoms of pet allergy vary, but they typically include:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Itchy or watery eyes
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Skin rash or hives

In severe cases, people may have asthma attacks, says the expert. These symptoms generally occur shortly after exposure to pet allergens and can range from mild to severe depending on the person’s sensitivity. Some people are also likely to experience symptoms like facial pressure or pain, swollen eyes, or a feeling of fatigue.

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What are the causes of pet allergy?

Pet allergy is caused by an overreaction of the immune system to proteins found in the saliva, urine, or skin flakes of animals. These proteins, known as allergens, can trigger allergic reactions in susceptible people when they come into contact with them. Generally, furry pets like cats and dogs are common sources of pet allergens, but even animals with feathers or scales can produce allergens. The allergens can become airborne and settle on surfaces, which makes it difficult to avoid them. Genetics have an important role to play in this, as people with a history of allergies in their families are more likely to develop them.

How to diagnose pet allergy?

Diagnosing pet allergy generally involves a involves a comprehensive strategy of medical history, physical examination, and allergy testing.

  • During the medical history, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and possible exposure to pets.
  • A physical examination may reveal signs of allergic reactions such as nasal congestion or skin irritation.
  • Allergy testing can include skin prick tests or blood tests to identify specific allergens, including those from pets. Skin prick tests involve exposing the skin to tiny amounts of allergens and observing for a reaction, while blood tests measure the presence of specific antibodies to pet allergens. These tests help in confirming the presence of pet allergy and form the base for treatment decisions.

Can you live with a pet you are allergic to?

Living with a pet you are allergic to is possible, but careful management is necessary for that, says Dr Krishnan.

A woman with pet allergy kissing her dog
Manage pet allergy to live with your dog or cat. Image courtesy: Freepik

For effective management:

  • Minimise exposure to pet allergens by keeping your pet out of certain areas of the home
  • Use high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and vacuum cleaners
  • Regularly groom and bath your pet
  • Frequently clean surfaces like floors and tables to remove allergens.

When to see a doctor?

It is advised to see a doctor if you experience symptoms of pet allergy that significantly impact your quality of life, like persistent sneezing, coughing, congestion, or difficulty in breathing when exposed to your pets. If over-the-counter allergy medications provide insufficient relief or if symptoms worsen despite efforts to minimise exposure to pet allergens, check with a doctor. Also, if you have a history of asthma or other respiratory conditions, then it is important to consult a doctor immediately to prevent exacerbation of symptoms.

How to treat pet allergy?

Treating pet allergy is necessary, as there can be complications. The list includes worsening of existing respiratory issues like asthma, leading to increased frequency and severity of asthma attacks. Excessive exposure to pet allergens may also contribute to chronic sinusitis or allergic rhinitis, causing ongoing nasal congestion, sinus pressure, and discomfort, says the expert. Skin complications like eczema or hives may develop in people with allergic reactions upon direct contact with pet allergens. Also, untreated pet allergy can impact quality of life, resulting in sleep disturbances, decreased productivity, and emotional distress because of persistent symptoms.

Treatment options for pet allergy include:

Allergen avoidance strategies, medications, and immunotherapy.

  • It will be hard, but minimise exposure to pet allergens by keeping your pet out of certain areas of your home like bedroom.
  • Medications like antihistamines, nasal corticosteroids, decongestants, and leukotriene modifiers can help in relieving symptoms.
  • Allergy shots (immunotherapy) involve gradually exposing the body to small amounts of allergen to desensitise the immune system and reduce allergic reactions over time. Sublingual immunotherapy (under-the-tongue tablets) is also an option, says the expert.

Before bringing a pet home, spend time with the little one to know your sensitivity to its dander. Consulting with an allergist before getting a pet can help, as they can provide personalised recommendations for minimising the risk of getting pet allergy.

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