No one can say when human beings began keeping animals as pets for the first time. Man’s best friend has been around since prehistoric times. The cat, the horse and other animals have also become indispensable, even playing a large role in the proliferation of the human species. One thing, however, may force these furry friends away from people and pet owners: a pet dander allergy.
The statistics show that Americans love pets. The American Pet Products Association (APPA) reports that 68% of US households have pets, which is about 85 million homes. Because the majority of pets are cats and dogs, pet dander poses a problem for the millions of pet owners who are allergic to their furry pals.
What is the definition of pet dander?
Though pet allergies are commonly associated with pet hair, the hair or fur itself is not the culprit. This is where pet dander comes into the picture. The term “dander” refers to the skin flakes shed by any animal that has fur or feathers. According to the NIH, allergies become worse because of certain proteins secreted by oil glands that slough off as dander. The proteins that can cause allergies to pets are called pet allergens.
Pet dander (skin flakes) is not the only source of pet allergens. These proteins, or allergy-triggers, are also found in urine and pet saliva (which can stick to animal fur, especially when pets lick themselves, and become airborne when dry).
There are about 90 million pet dogs (according to a survey of pet ownership in 2017), which means that there is a lot of dog dander floating within American households. Dog dander and saliva contain specific proteins that cause allergies; the major dog allergen is a protein called Can f 1, which about 70% of people with dog allergies are allergic to (Zahradnik & Raulf, 2014). Though there is a lot of mention of “hypoallergenic” dogs, the truth is there is no allergy-free breed.
Though there are more owned dogs than cats across the US, about twice as many people report they’re allergic to cats compared to dogs (source: American Lung Association). Though cat dander is a source of many allergens, the major one is called Fel d 1. This protein is the most studied animal allergen in terms of molecular structure, how it spreads in the environment and how exposure leads to allergies.
Dander from horses, guinea pigs, and other animals
Cats and dogs are not the only pets to shed dander and cause allergies. The most frequent source of pet allergies is to domesticated animals with fur or feathers, which include not only cats and dogs, but horses, guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters and birds.
Pet dander allergy
How do these allergy-inducing proteins become a source of indoor air pollution? The answer is by flight: pet allergens take to the air on board tiny particles and when inhaled, may trigger allergic reactions. The American Lung Association (ALA) says that pet allergens easily stick to furniture, bedding and other fabrics because of their microscopic size and prickly shape. They are extremely light and tiny and can suspend in the air for quite a long time.
When the harmless, tiny skin flakes from your furry friends become harmful, you may have pet dander allergies. For people who are allergic or for whom asthma symptoms are made worse by it, pet dander can become a serious health problem. People who are allergic to pet dander may experience respiratory symptoms or a pet dander rash.
According to the Mayo Clinic, nasal/respiratory symptoms of a pet allergy include, but are not limited to:
- Sneezing and runny nose
- Itchy, red or watery eyes
- Nasal congestion, and possible facial pain because of it
- Cough, chest tightness, shortness of breath and wheezing
Some people experience skin symptoms as well and report a pet dander rash. This pattern, called allergic dermatitis, is what the Mayo Clinic describes as:
- Raised, red patches of skin (hives)
- Itchy skin
If you develop respiratory or skin symptoms because of pet dander, doctors usually recommend removing the pet from your home. However, what if you are allergic but cannot live without your pets? Luckily, there are some solutions that may prove helpful.
How to reduce pet dander exposure
There are about 184 million cats and dogs in American households, which also means there are millions of pet lovers who are allergic to them but cannot part with them. For those who are managing to keep pets despite their allergies, here are some methods to improve the situation.
How long does pet dander last in a home
The thing about pet dander is that it lasts a long time–in fact, the NIH describes that pet allergens can circulate in the air and stay on carpets and furniture for weeks and months after a pet is gone from the home.
Surprisingly, you can also find pet allergens in public buildings and schools where there are no pets! The reason why pet dander seems to be everywhere is pet allergens are easily transported on clothing, stick very well to surfaces, and are very tiny and easily airborne (Zahradnik & Raulf, 2014).
For those pet owners who are allergic but cannot bear to give up their pets, there are some solutions that may reduce pet dander in the home (though you cannot remove it from your home entirely).
Ongoing preventive strategies
Because of the staying power of pet dander, it is important to keep up a routine if you are allergic to your pets. Here are some of the best preventive strategies you can try, if possible:
- Though they can be quite adorable and want to be by your side day or night, it is best not to keep pets in your bedroom.
- Keep pets in areas that do not have carpeted floors or upholstered furniture where pet dander and allergens can cling.
- Bathe pets every week to wash off dander and other sources of allergens like dried saliva.
- Vacuum regularly as pet dander and allergens can accumulate in dust.
- Ask a friend or family member who does not have allergies to frequently brush your pet outside.
- Clean frequently to remove pet allergens from household surfaces
- Launder clothing and linen often to remove pet dander and other sources of allergens.
- Use impermeable, or allergen-proof mattress and pillow covers.
Pet dander allergy treatment
Often, it is best to ask your allergist/immunologist for a proper diagnosis of a pet allergy.
Medication for pet allergies
Though this is not an ideal treatment for long-term use, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) says that antihistamines and other allergy medicine available over-the-counter may offer symptom relief.
For people who are allergic to pet dander and allergens, a long-term treatment solution called immunotherapy (also known as allergy shots) may be beneficial. This is when injections of small, but increasing amounts of pet allergens are given to build up the body’s tolerance over time.
Other remedies: Cat dander treatment
There are a few pet dander sprays out there, yet their claims may be unsubstantiated; trial and error prevail in this case. Few scientific studies exist and one in particular tested the efficacy of a certain cat dander spray called Allerpet-C. Results showed there was no significant reduction in the levels of cat allergen Fel d 1 in the air samples taken during the study (Klucka et al., 1995).
Pet dander and air purifiers
Some pet allergens can be carried by tiny dust particles between 1 and 20 micrometers in size; others have been found to be less than 5 micrometers in size and remain suspended in the air for long periods of time (Zahradnik & Raulf, 2014). The aerodynamic nature of pet dander and pet allergens, as well as their “sticking” power to fabrics, carpets and upholstered furniture, almost guarantee their presence in the indoor air of households with pets.
After cleaning and other preventive measures are taken, one more step to consider for pet owners is an air purifier. Because not all pet dander can be eliminated even with rigorous household cleaning and regular grooming, using an air purifier can help remove the inhalable particles that enter the nose and lungs and may cause allergic reactions.
Mechanical air filters like HEPA filters claim to remove small particles and help with pet dander, while others make similar claims but use a potentially harmful ionizing or ozone technology. Other air purifiers, such as those that contain only a carbon air filter, cannot remove particles (and therefore pet dander) at all.
The Molekule technology is different from other types of air purification. Common air filters like HEPA are designed to trap particles on filters, often dependent on the size of the particle–our air purifier can completely destroy organic particles like pet dander independent of size.
This technology has proven effective in a pilot study of allergy sufferers, where nasal and eye symptoms were significantly reduced after use of the device for four weeks. The results were presented to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
Pet allergy sufferers often must come to terms with the realities of having a pet in their home. If conditions are manageable and there is no serious health risk (especially for those with asthma), you can improve life alongside your furry pals by considering the advice of researchers, physicians and pet owners alike. Taking some of the steps above can help you better enjoy your time at home with your family, including the four-legged kind.