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pet allergies

New Yorkers for Companion Animals, a Manhattan-based animal rescue group, says allergies are one of the top-five reasons pet owners give up their pets.

"It is a huge problem," Patty Adjamine, head of NYCA, wrote in a recent report, Main Reasons Pets Die In New York City and the Solutions to Them. "There are many other viable options which can allow the caregiver to keep his/her pet while at the same time not have to suffer the miseries of allergies."

Dr. Clifford Bassett, a fellow of the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology agrees. His practice, Allergy and Asthma Care of New York on East 18th Street, proudly hangs up pictures of patients with their pets. "There is a psychological bond between us and our pets," Dr. Bassett said, adding that the most pet allergies stem from cats. "They provide a non-physical means for us to decrease anxiety, and that's a good thing. So we do our best to work with our pet-owning patients to lessen their sensitivity. Once the pet allergy is reduced, primary treatment is available."

Following is an excerpt from an article Dr. Bassett wrote for The Allergy and Asthma Advocate, a quarterly patient newsletter from the AAAAI.

Allergy suffers are not really allergic to their pet's fur or feathers, but what's on it. A pet's dander, skin flakes, saliva and urine contain an allergen called FelD-1. It's spread by everything from the pet's self-grooming to sleeping in your bed. Hair or fur also collect pollens, mold spores and other outdoor allergens if you pet goes out. People also develop allergies to animal droppings, especially bird droppings and urine from small mammals, especially when it dries and small particles become airborne.

No "Hypoallergenic Breeds", But Coat Color May Play a Role
The presence of allergic dander in cats and dogs is not affected by length of hair or fur, and there are no truly "hypoallergenic breeds," although Dr. Bassett said some individuals say poodles and schnauzers produce less dander. One study conducted at The Long Island College Hospital in New York City suggested the color of a cat's hair may influence true allergic symptoms in people exposed to the dander. Preliminary data from a self-administered questionnaire of 400 households with pet cats indicated a significantly greater amount of allergy-related symptoms (such as sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes and itchy skin) with exposure to dark cat hair.

Traveling Allergens
The severity of allergy symptoms seems greater in owners who permitted their pets unlimited access to the bedroom, where humans spend at least 1/3 of their lives sleeping. And certain types of clothing affects the transportation of pet dander--wool sweaters are allergen magnets. One Sydney study found that people who wore wool sweaters were exposed to more than 10 times the amount of cat dander than individuals wearing no upper body clothing.

Clearing the air
Because pet dander is quite light and buoyant, and floats freely in the indoor air, electrostatic or HEPA air cleaners can be a big help in removing unwanted allergenic particles, especially cat dander. The size of the space determines the size filter necessary, and units are even available in table-top size. But bear in mind that it may take six months or more to completely rid the home of cat dander particles even after the pet is removed; keeping the window open helps speed the allergens' exit from your home.

Tips to keep the allergens at bay

1. Avoid hugging and kissing pets if you are allergic to them.
2. Remove litter boxes from direct contact with allergy sufferers. Look for "low-dust" or "dust free" brands of litter.
3. Wash hands after handling or touching a pet.
4. Consider placing plastic covers on the couch or other upholstered furniture (which may harbor pet allergens) where the pet sleeps or rests.
5. Wash your pet weekly. Recent studies have indicated that some significant reduction in the amount of pet allergens occurs with weekly washing of dogs and cats. A number of shampoo products are available in pet stores that may neutralize or inactivate allergens present on the skin of cats and dogs. (You don't even have to do it yourself; Doggie Bath, based in Manhattan, will wash your dog right in your own home!) Two commonly used products, Allerpet and Nature's Miracle Dander and Odor Eliminator, come in spray bottles that let you spray some solution on your pet, rub them down with a cloth, and you're done. (Allerpet/C, D and B treats cats, dogs and birds, respectively.)
6. A non-allergic individual should brush the pet regularly, outside of the home.
7. Speak with your pet's veterinarian to get a well balanced diet for your pet. This change in diet may help to minimize hair loss for the pet and this can reduce dander indoors.
8. Use a double or micro-filter bag in the vacuum to augment the filtration of the vacuum cleaner and, in turn, reduce the amount of pet allergen present in carpeting that leaks back into the room air.
9. A number of chemical solutions, like tanic acid, are available that may remove allergens present in carpeting. However, removing carpeting and rugs is the best way to reduce exposure.
10. Finally, look into allergy shots (immunotherapy) from your allergist/immunologist to reduce the unnecessary suffering associated with having a pet in the home.

Dr. Bassett concedes to a point where an allergy sufferer may have to consider a new home for their pet. "If you have severe asthma, if you're taking 3 or more meds daily to treat your asthma/allergies, if you have an allergic child in the house or chronic sinusitis, it's time to find a new home for the pet," he said. In this case, prevention may avoid heartbreak later. "Have your whole household spend some time with friends with pets or at an animal shelter before you get one," Ms. Adjamine suggests. Otherwise, your new pet may be without a home again.

Improve the air quality of your home with a high performance furnace filter. Visit Webproducts to learn more about air filters.

For more information, visit the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology website at The "Patients & Consumers" section has tons of helpful information. Keep in mind that one of the most important parts of treating an allergy is finding out exactly what you're allergic to. Your allergy may actually be to dust mite and cockroach droppings which, while gross, can especially affect people living in small apartments.

Dr. Bassett is continuing research on findings which suggest more allergens may be produced by dark haired and male cats. Anybody who has a cat can apply to participate in the study. Call Dr. Bassett at (212) 260-6978.

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Most recent update: 9/6/07
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