In the past several decades, the number of people with pet allergies has increased, primarily because the number of people with allergies in general has increased, says Dr. Ronald Ferdman of highly rated Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
“It’s proportional,” he says. “But
in terms of a higher percentage
of people having pet allergies,
I don’t believe this is occurring.”
Allergy symptoms, however, may be more intense today, says Dr. Thao Tran, an allergist at highly rated Northwest Asthma and Allergy Center in Issaquah, Wash. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, the U.S. pet population exceeds 100 million, the equivalent of about four pets for every 10 people. The concentration of house pets, combined with well-insulated buildings have increased humans’ exposure to pet allergens at home, work and public places.
Microscopic flakes of pets’ dander, dried saliva and urine float through the air for humans to inhale, touch or digest, Ferdman says. They settle on clothing and other surfaces, too. Consequently, people can experience pet allergy symptoms without being near the animal. “If I go into any classroom in America and vacuum the floor, I will find significant pet hair in the vacuum bag, and on other kid’s clothing,” Ferdman says.
Mix says such uncontrollable factors convinced her she’ll have symptoms no matter what. She says the Nasonex nasal spray Stafford prescribed is doing a better job of controlling her symptoms than the allergy shots she took for four months without relief. “My allergies are now under control. I don’t have to get rid of my cat,” says Mix, whose boyfriend also hired someone to clean her home each week.
About 13 percent of members polled online say they refused to remove a pet from their home due to allergies, despite a doctor’s recommendation. Instead they replaced carpet — where pet allergens get imbedded — with tile, laminate or hardwood flooring. Some members say they replaced upholstered furniture, moved a dog outside and many restrict pets’ access to certain areas inside the home. Still others make sure to clean their house regularly and use HEPA filters in heating and cooling systems and vacuums. Experts also recommend cleaning pets’ feet and fur after walks, and washing your hands after contact.
Advising patients to remove pets is a difficult conversation, Stafford says. Pets offer unconditional love, and they produce therapeutic benefits, he adds. A 2012 study by the American Heart Association says there’s evidence that pet owners are at lower risk of getting heart disease because pets help them get more exercise and handle stress better. However, allergies can be unpredictable and worsen over time. For some people, no amount of changes at home will make a big enough difference to allow them to live with pets.
Member Patricia Ayers of Greenville, S.C., says she has had allergies for more than 30 years, but symptoms worsened after she turned 50 and developed asthma. “I don’t just have pet allergies, I have multiple allergies,” she says.
As many as 30 percent of people with asthma have pet allergy symptoms, the ACAAI reports. Ayers says her triggers are so bad she no longer visits her daughter’s home because her grandchildren won’t part with their multiple cats and dogs. She says her last visit there ended with an infection. “My lung doctor had a fit when my sinuses got infected because of cat dander,” she says.
Ayers, who once bred dogs, says highly rated pulmonologist Dr. Charles Thompson of Carolina Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine Consultants in Anderson, S.C., is treating her asthma, and an air purifier helps guard against pet allergens. However, she says she can’t take medication to control pet allergies because of her other ailments and allergies. “My allergist told me the older I got, the worse it would get,” she says.