Pet Allergies and the Myth of the Hypoallergenic Pet

Submitted by Meaghan West, RVT

The prevalence of pet related allergies has risen dramatically in recent years, with most reported sensitivities related to cats and dogs. These allergic reactions can range from mild discomfort to anaphylaxis; hair, dander, saliva, and urine can all be sources of allergens. The misconception of “hypoallergenic” and “non-shedding” pets may seem to provide hope to those who love the company of cats and dogs, but this is nothing more than a lucrative marketing ploy.

Allergens are proteins that cause an immune system response. An allergic response may result from the ingestion or inhalation of these proteins, as well as direct skin contact. The immune system is not static and the severity of reactions may decrease over time from regular exposure; however, it is also possible for allergic reactions to become more severe from continued exposure.

Unfortunately, when it comes to pets, “hypoallergenic” does not mean the animal is allergen free. Rather, it means fewer than average allergens are produced by the animal. The concept of a “non-shedding” animal is a clever marketing ploy, as all animals with hair, fur, and feathers must shed. However, this does not mean that those who suffer from pet allergies are out of luck, only that finding the right pet may take some time, effort, and out of the box thinking.

Prior to getting a dog or cat consider a breed with hair rather than fur, as these breeds tend to shed less and have shorter coats. Dogs (e.g., Poodles, Bichon Frises, and Portuguese Water Dogs) and cats (e.g., Cornish Rex and Devon Rex) with hair also lack the dense undercoat that is often shed seasonally in other breeds. Mixes of these breeds also tend to have fewer allergens than average as well. It is important to note that genetics and breeding are not simple equations; keep in mind that every puppy or kitten in a litter is neither a copy of their siblings nor their parents. A pet may not trigger an allergic response, while a littermate or parent could produce a very different effect.

Younger animals produce fewer allergens than adult animals, which could result in an increase in allergic symptoms as the animal ages. Adopting an adult animal decreases the chance of causing an unexpected reaction. Surprisingly, female cats and dogs, and males who have been neutered, also produce fewer allergens; another excellent reason to spay and neuter!

Daily brushing and routine bathing can help minimize allergens in the home by removing dust, pollen, dead hair, and dander from your pet, while also promoting a healthy coat. Proper hygiene after handling pets (e.g., routine handwashing) can eliminate many allergens from being transported to the eyes and nose. Limiting a pet’s access to human sleeping areas, using HEPA filters, and regular vacuuming will also reduce allergens. Keeping cats inside also ensures that they are not bringing in extra dust and pollen, which may trigger additional allergic responses. Antihistamines and medication may also alleviate the symptoms of pet allergies.

While cats and dogs may be the most common source of allergens for potential pet owners, there are many species other than cats and dogs that can make wonderful companions. Rabbits, guinea pigs, and birds are all social animals that enjoy human interaction (e.g., cuddling, grooming, agility, and learning tricks), and may be an alternative for those with specific allergies to cats and dogs. Hand friendly reptiles such as bearded dragons, leopard geckos, and crested geckos can be a great alternative to pets with fur or feathers. It is important to remember that those animals marketed as 100% allergen free are marketing scams aimed to take advantage of you and the animal. Do not fall victim to these clever marketing schemes and false claims; a wonderful pet is waiting for you whether it has fur, feathers, or scales.