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For most people, having a dog in the house is an absolute pleasure. They make the ambience livelier and keep people happier - there are even some scientific claims of how pets improve health outcomes for owners, but more studies need to be done to corroborate this. However, there is an uncomfortable reality for some dog lovers to face. Roughly one in ten people are allergic to pets.

What causes a pet allergy? It is caused by certain types of proteins released in the dog’s urine, skin cells, or saliva. Dander (dry, flaky skin) is the most frequently implicated allergen: it is light and small enough to remain suspended in the air for a long period of time and get inhaled by a human. Similarly, saliva, urine and faeces can cling to any surface and the dust rising from them can also cause an allergic reaction. In canines, the Can f 1 protein is the most common cause of an allergic reaction.

If you notice that you sneeze, have a runny nose and/or congestion, have trouble sleeping or have intense pain in the face after being around or playing with a pet, you may be allergic to them. There may also be skin-related symptoms if you are allergic to pet dander, pet saliva or pet pee: hiveseczema, and itching are commonly reported in people who are allergic to dogs.

The symptoms of a dog allergy can be similar to the symptoms of a common cold in humans. However, if you have asthma or breathing-related issues, a dog-related allergy could land you in the emergency ward. Those with poor immunity and underlying conditions that suppress the immunity are most at risk from a severe adverse event arising from a dog allergy. Additionally, some people may have an especially adverse reaction without any underlying condition or poor immunity as well - it varies from individual to individual.

To be sure, sometimes the symptoms of allergy are mild and can be reduced with some housekeeping steps and over-the-counter medication. But at other times, the allergic reactions are more serious and can heighten the risks of underlying conditions like asthma. So what does this mean for someone who is allergic to dogs but loves them?

The answer is a little complex. First, they need to understand what triggers their allergies:

  • Dander, hair: Contrary to popular belief, it is not dog fur or hair that is responsible for allergies. It is the dust and particles they carry. Dander, dry flakes on a dog’s skin, contains proteins that can cause allergies in humans. Dander can get trapped in a dog’s fur and float in the atmosphere when a dog sheds. However, there is dander on hairless dogs, too. While dogs that shed little or no hair can, in theory, reduce the allergens in the air, but repeated studies have shown that houses with "hypoallergenic" and regular dogs have the same amounts of allergy-causing debris.
    "Hypoallergenic dogs" is a marketing term used to describe dog breeds that are less likely to induce an allergic reaction in most people with dog allergies. The internet and breeders across the world often claim that certain dog breeds spread no allergens, but this is not entirely true.
  • Urine, saliva or something else: Also, as mentioned above, the urine and saliva of a dog can also cause allergies to sensitive groups. Studies have shown that what matters more than the breed of the dog is what the individual person is allergic to. Remember that allergens are otherwise harmless objects that for some reason, trigger an immune response in some people. This means that someone prone to allergies can be totally okay around a Labrador Retriever (they tend to shed a lot) but have an allergic reaction to a hairless dog like an American Hairless Terrier.

Next, it's important to understand some way to prevent allergic reactions:

  • Before adopting a dog, keep in mind that smaller breeds tend to be better than larger breeds since they shed less because of their size. Remember that dust and other particles can get trapped in dog fur and cause reactions based on those. That said, remember that allergies can vary from person to person. So, if you have an allergy but you are determined to get a dog, go in person to meet the dog you want to adopt. Try meeting the dog a few times before adoption, if possible.
  • Bathing your dog often - once or twice a week - keeps dander levels down and prevents allergy flare-ups in people who are allergic. Keep in mind that weekly and twice-weekly baths are not recommended for dogs otherwise.
  • There are ways to make your house stronger as well: get rid of carpets and rugs and anything that has the tendency to amass hair, saliva and urine. You should also limit your dog’s access to beds and sofas: consider making pet-free zones in your house to limit the spread of allergens.
  • Given the unpredictable nature of dog allergies, some unconventional options are available. You could foster if you wish to adopt a rescue dog to see if he or she triggers your allergies. If you want to adopt a pedigreed dog, then request the veterinary doctor, breeder or friend - whoever is giving the dog to you - if you can "test" a dog for adoption for some days or weeks. This is a good way to figure out if you are allergic to the dog or not.
    Of course, there are limitations: it is stressful and traumatic for the pet and owner alike to be separated, so this option is considered a little radical.

There are some breeds that you can focus your search on if you have concerns about allergies. These breeds shed less, have single coats so maybe dust-related allergies can be cut down. However, please note that the following list is based on anecdotal evidence and reputable vets will tell you that there is no such thing as a "hypoallergenic dogs".

  1. Afghan Hound
  2. Poodle
  3. Peruvian Inca Orchid (Hairless)
  4. Bichon Frise
  5. Maltese
  6. Standard Schnauzer
  7. What to do if you are allergic to dogs
  8. Tips to reduce allergens in the household

This regal-looking dog is known for its sedate and somewhat aloof behaviour. The reason why it's considered to have a lower chance of causing allergies is that it does not shed too much. Given its luxurious coat, the Afghan Hound requires regular grooming - as often as every week. The act of cleaning gets rid of dander as it penetrates the deeper layers of the fur.

Poodles fit the bill since they are single coated and comparatively small animals. They are known to not shed too much: this means there is a lower likelihood of hair swirling around in the air carrying dust, pollen or other allergenic particles. Remember that this means that certain kinds of allergies may be prevented, but it is inaccurate to say that the entire breed is "hypoallergenic".

This breed received a lot of attention after former US President Barack Obama expressed his interest in adopting a dog that would not cause his 10-year-old daughter to have an allergic reaction. This is an active dog breed that does really well in outdoor settings and comes in various sizes. The hairless varieties are popular since they can’t shed hair.

The diminutive Bichon Frise is a very pleasant family pet that is gentle and playful. An interesting characteristic of the Frise is that its hair keeps growing but does not shed. Given its small size and shedding characteristics, it has become popular as a breed that doesn’t cause allergic flare-ups in people who may be allergic to some other dogs. 

Similar to the Bichon Frise, the Maltese is small in size and is known to shed very little. Unlike the Frise, however, Malteses are supposed to be more energetic and slightly more independent-minded: factors that may influence your choice of which breed to adopt.

This is a larger, boisterous dog that needs a good deal of daily activity. Schnauzers need to be groomed often to prevent matting, which can lower the level of dander. An added advantage is that this breed is known to be good with children. 

If you experience flu-like symptoms or skin allergies when you’re around dogs, it is a good idea to get a doctor to examine you.

  • It is quite easy to diagnose a dog allergy: symptoms and history of exposure to dogs are usually sufficient to come to a conclusion.
  • Allergy tests such as the skin allergy test can also be performed. In this test, the lab technician will prick your skin with a small, concentrated form of a particular allergen. If a red, itchy spot appears within 15-20 minutes, it means you are allergic to that dog.
  • Similarly, blood tests can be conducted to investigate elevate levels of antibodies.

Treatment

For milder situations, over-the-counter antihistamines or antibiotics are prescribed. Depending on the condition, corticosteroids and decongestants are provided as well. 

A more involved treatment involves immunotherapy. Injections containing tiny amounts of the allergen are given weekly. The dosage is increased over time. To build up immunity, maintenance shots are given for up to five years, every four weeks. This method is used when other, more conventional means don’t yield satisfactory results.

While most symptoms that appear because of dog allergies are relatively mild, those suffering from asthma or chronic sinus infections are at added risk of adverse reactions. If you are asthmatic and feel short of breath around dogs, consult your doctor if it is the best idea to have a pet dog. 

While this is a hard choice to make, you must weigh the pros and cons: if there is a chance of you or a loved one suffering a life-threatening reaction, then it is perhaps not the best idea to have a pet in the house.

While every dog will spread at least some allergens, there are some steps you can take to limit the harmful effects:

  • Groom your dog regularly. This is the best way to ensure that there isn’t excess dander that can get dispersed in the air. 
  • Vacuum floors, especially carpets and sofas, regularly. The fur can get picked up this way. 
  • Put someone else in charge of grooming. Brushing and grooming a dog is important, but if you are not able to do this because of allergic reactions, get your partner or family member to do this part instead. 
  • Use a HEPA air purifier. These devices filter the air and can cut levels of dander in the immediate environment. 
  • Regularly flush your nose with saline solution. Doing this is known to mitigate the effects of colds and congestion. 
  • Try to keep your pet off your bed and sofas. Further, it is a good idea to regularly wash your dog’s bedding as well.

References

  1. Breitenbuecher C., Belanger J.M., Levy K. et al. Protein expression and genetic variability of canine Can f 1 in golden and Labrador retriever service dogs. Canine Genetics and Epidemiology, 22 April 2016; 3(3)
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