Allergies to pets are one of the most common reasons pets end up in shelters. And, while many pet parents agree that the enjoyment they get from their pets outweighs the annoyance of their allergies, living with a pet you’re allergic to can affect both your lifestyle and your health. So if you suspect you might be allergic, get all the facts before you adopt.
Learn the symptoms of pet allergies. “If you experience symptoms such as sneezing, itchy eyes, itchy nose, runny nose, hives, cough, shortness of breath or chest tightness around pets, you may be allergic,” says Deborah Pockross, M.D., an allergist and immunologist at Kenilworth Medical Associates in Illinois.
If you have any of those symptoms, Dr. Pockross suggests you make an appointment with an allergist to talk about allergy testing.
Get tested. You can get tested for allergies to dogs and cats, but also rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, horses, mice and rats. “There are two ways to evaluate for a pet allergy,” says Dr. Pockross. “The preferred and statistically more sensitive test is the skin test. The skin is scratched with a device containing pet dander. The skin will react and become itchy and swollen like a mosquito bite at the site of the scratch within 15 to 20 minutes if the person is allergic.”
The second method is a blood test, which can be just as effective at diagnosing an allergy, but needs to be sent out to a lab. Both tests are usually covered by insurance. However, no test is 100% reliable, so it’s important to talk to your doctor about your symptoms and medical history.
Research your options. If test results indicate that you are allergic to the type of pet you’d like to adopt, don’t give up — there are ways to live with a pet while minimizing your exposure to allergens. Talk to your doctor about your options. “Avoidance measures such as keeping pets out of the bedroom and off upholstered furniture, using a HEPA air cleaner and bathing or brushing the pet regularly will help decrease symptoms,” says Dr. Pockross.
You can also discuss medication to treat your symptoms and immunotherapy (allergy shots) to reduce your allergen sensitivity over time. “If someone decides to keep or adopt a pet to which they are allergic, allergen immunotherapy that results in desensitization to the pertinent allergen would be the recommended step,” says Alvin Sanico, M.D., medical director of the Asthma Sinus Allergy Program at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
Consider other breeds and species. While no dog or cat breed is non-allergenic, several breeds tend to be less irritating to allergy sufferers. (Check out our articles on the Top Dogs for People With Allergies and Top Cats for People With Allergies.)
If your allergies are just too severe to adopt the species you want, there are many other adoptable pets who need homes. “It is possible to have an allergy to a specific species and not others,” says Dr. Pockross. Just make sure to get tested for allergies to that species as well.
Meet the pet in person. The most important thing to remember is that, regardless of the species or breed of pet, each allergy sufferer has a unique reaction to each individual pet. So when you find a pet you’re interested in adopting, be sure to spend plenty of one-on-one time with him or her before you make your decision.
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