Many people think that pet allergy is provoked by the fur of cats and dogs. Researchers have found, however, that the major allergens are proteins in the saliva. These proteins stick to the fur when the animal licks itself. Therefore, often it is pet dander, the skin flakes shed from an animal’s body similar to dandruff or pet pollen, that bears this allergy-causing saliva and triggers allergic reactions in people.
Urine is also a source of allergy-causing proteins, as is the skin. When the substance carrying the proteins dries, the proteins can then float into the air. Cats may be more likely than dogs to cause allergic reactions because they lick themselves more, may be held more, and spend more time in the house, close to humans.
Some rodents, such as guinea pigs and gerbils, have become increasingly popular as household pets. They, too, can cause allergic reactions in some people, as can mice and rats. Urine is the major source of allergens from these animals.
Allergies to animals can take 2 years or more to develop and may not decrease until 6 months or more after ending contact with the animal. Carpet and furniture are a reservoir for pet allergens, and the allergens can remain in them for 4 to 6 weeks. In addition, these allergens can stay in household air for months after the animal has been removed. Therefore, it is wise for people with an animal allergy to check with the landlord or previous owner to find out if furry pets lived on the premises.
Good News for Pet Allergy Sufferers
Research on allergies is focused on understanding what happens to the human body during the allergic process – the sequence of events leading to the allergic response and the factors responsible for allergic diseases.
Scientists supported by NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) found that, during the first years of their lives, children raised in a house with two or more dogs or cats may be less likely to develop allergic diseases as compared with children raised without pets. The striking finding here is that high pet exposure early in life appears to protect some children from not only pet allergy but also other types of common allergies, such as allergy to house dust mites, ragweed, and grass. This new finding is changing the way scientists think about pet exposure. Scientists must now figure out how pet exposure causes a general shift of the immune system away from an allergic response.
The results of this and a number of other studies suggest that bacteria carried by pets may be responsible for holding back the immune system’s allergic response. These bacteria release molecules called endotoxin. Some researchers think endotoxin is the molecule responsible for shifting the developing immune system away from responding to allergens through a class of lymphocytes called Th-2 cells. (These cells are associated with allergic reactions.) Instead, endotoxin may stimulate the immune system to block allergic reactions.
If scientists can find out exactly what it is about pets or the bacteria they carry that prevents the allergic response, they might be able to develop a new allergy treatment.
Pet Allergy Tips
Actually, these are tips for controlling allergies to all the furry creatures you can’t help but cuddle.
If you or your child is allergic to furry pets, especially cats, the best way to avoid allergic reactions is to find them another home. If you are like most people who are attached to their pets, that is usually not a desirable option. There are ways, however, to help lower the levels of animal allergens in the air, which may reduce allergic reactions.
- Bathe your cat weekly and brush it more frequently (ideally, a non-allergic person should do this).
- Keep cats out of your bedroom.
- Remove carpets and soft furnishings, which collect animal allergens.
- Use a vacuum cleaner and room air cleaners with HEPA filters.
- Wear a face mask while house and cat cleaning.
Allergy Risk Factors
There is evidence that a combination of genetics and environmental factors may play a role in your allergies. While the exact genetic (inherited) factors are not yet understood, the tendency to allergies, as well as to allergic disease, is linked to heredity. Additionally, people with certain medical conditions have been linked to allergies. People with medical conditions such as asthma or other lung conditions that affect breathing, frequent infections of the nasal sinuses, ears, or respiratory tract, eczema or sensitive skin, are more likely to develop and/or have allergies. Further, your surrounding environment may aggravate your allergies: the more intense and repetitive your exposure is to allergens and the earlier in life it occurs, the more likely it is that an allergy will develop.Content Created/Medically Reviewed by our Expert Doctors