Allergic to Your Pet? Here’s How to Cope

Emily Boynton Fact Checked
Woman cuddles her dog while camping outside
© Leah Flores / Stocksy United

From a wagging tail when you wake up to cuddles after work, your pet can provide comfort, decrease stress and boost your mood

But what do you do if your four-legged or feathered companion causes you to sniffle, sneeze or wheeze? 

In most allergy cases, you can prevent symptoms by simply removing the thing that is causing you to have an allergic reaction. But when the cause of your symptoms is your pet, things become a bit more complicated.

“We have a saying in our practice, ‘People get rid of their allergist before their animals,’” says Dr. Drew Ayars, a physician (and self-proclaimed dog lover) who sees patients at the Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Clinic at UW Medical Center – Montlake and the Allergy Clinic at Eastside Specialty Center.

Ayars shares how it’s possible to live with a pet even if you have allergies.  

What causes pet allergies?

Both genetic and environmental factors — especially those from the environment you grew up in — contribute to the development of pet allergies and asthma, Ayars says. 

Allergies are an immune response to something benign in the environment — called an allergen — like pollen, food or pet dander. When someone with a pet allergy is exposed to pet dander, it triggers their immune response, which in turn causes them to experience allergy symptoms. 

Symptoms can vary, but the most common include sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes and congestion. If you have asthma, a pet allergy may also cause wheezing and difficulty breathing. 

How do you test for pet allergies?

If you are experiencing allergy symptoms, you can schedule a test with your doctor to see if your pet is the culprit. Depending on your doctor, you will either get a blood test or a skin test. 

The blood test requires a blood draw, which is sent to a lab so doctors can test the response of specific antibodies in your blood to the allergen. For a blood test, it will take a couple days minimum to get your results back. 

The skin test, which you can receive at UW Medicine, involves pricking the skin with a small amount of the purified allergen. If your skin has an allergic reaction in that area, then your allergy is confirmed. 

“We use a skin test because it’s quick; it takes 20 minutes and you have your answer,” Ayars says. “If someone has symptoms around pets, the testing helps confirm the allergy.” 

How can you reduce pet allergens and allergy symptoms?

So, you have pet allergies but no intention of getting rid of your pet (we feel you). 

Depending on the severity of your symptoms and the adaptability of your living space, you have different options to reduce your symptoms and breathe easier. 

Symptoms management

Over-the-counter medications like antihistamines, nasal sprays and decongestants help to relieve your symptoms by reducing inflammation and lessening your immune system’s response to the allergen. 

Non-sedating oral antihistamines (think Claritin or Zyrtec) and nasal steroids are safe for most people, even long term, Ayars says. Decongestants, on the other hand, are usually safe to take on an as-needed basis but are not recommended for regular, long-term use. 

If you have asthma, Ayars also recommends talking to your doctor about what asthma therapy options will best help you manage your symptoms. In cases of severe asthma, you should speak with your primary care doctor and allergist before adopting a pet.

Allergy treatment

If you aren’t able to control your symptoms through over-the-counter medications or medical therapy, it might be time to step up your game with allergy treatment. 

“Treatment involves desensitizing people through allergy shots,” Ayars says. “The idea is to give patients small doses of what they are allergic to so they build up tolerance over time.”

While effective, allergy shots require a time commitment. The process typically takes three to five years, with 20 to 30 shots in the initial build-up phase, then a shot every month until the treatment is complete. 

The upside? Most people continue to see the benefits of allergy shots even when they are discontinued.

Environment control

Along with medication and treatment, you can also work to reduce the amount of allergens you come into contact with by changing and cleaning your environment. 

Though not feasible for everyone, getting rid of any upholstered furniture and carpet can do wonders for reducing the amount of dander that builds up in your house. Vacuuming can also help, regardless of if you have carpet or wood floors.

Ayars also recommends using a HEPA filter to decrease the amount of allergen in the air, especially in your bedroom. 

One caveat? Ayars notes these tactics are less effective with cats, whose dander spreads easily and is harder to eliminate. 

Pet cleaning 

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic breed, Ayars says. There can be some differences in the amount of allergen between individual animals, but there isn’t a way to guarantee this just by selecting a poodle or Balinese cat. 

Giving your pet a bath, however, can help reduce the amount of dander you’re exposed to.

This can be effective in lowering allergen levels for both dogs and cats if performed frequently. Though for obvious reasons, the bathing process is often more feasible with dogs. 

Once you’ve bathed your pet (and after touching them in general), wash your hands to avoid spreading any pet dander to your eyes, mouth or nose when you touch your face.

No matter what tactics you decide to try, Ayars emphasizes that you don’t have to suffer allergy symptoms just because you want a pet. 

“Many people are going to get pets regardless of allergies. Our job it to help people live with them,” he says.