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How to manage an allergic reaction to dogs

Dogs are one of the most loyal and affectionate pets for families of all sizes, so what do you do if you love dogs but are allergic to them? Here, we look at what dog allergies really are, what you can do about a dog allergy, and some of the dog breeds that could be more suitable for those with dog allergies.

Understanding dog allergies

Allergens are usually harmless substances that trigger an immune response in people with allergies, resulting in symptoms such as sneezing and itchy eyes.1

The main source of dog allergen is a protein found in dog saliva2, but dander (made up of skin particles) is thought to contain allergens as well.3 As such, while all dog breeds can potentially cause allergies, the degree to which they are suffered will vary because of the variation in how much hair and skin flakes different breeds3 shed. Dog allergies, along with other types of pet allergies, are a common trigger for allergic diseases such as asthma and allergic rhinitis (hay fever).2

Symptoms of dog allergies

Symptoms of dog allergies can include puffiness around the face, watery and/or swollen eyes, a runny nose, itching, and irritated skin.1 Allergic reactions can range from mild sensitivity to much more severe symptoms, depending on the individual person, as well as how much allergens you are exposed too.1

Up to 50% of people with an animal allergy do not experience immediate symptoms.3 Additionally, many people with an allergy are actually sensitive to multiple allergens not just from their dog or pet, and so should focus on reducing all allergens they are exposed to rather than simply addressing their pet allergy alone.

Testing for dog allergies

You can see a doctor about getting skin prick tests or allergen specific IgE (RAST) allergy tests, and in some cases, you might have to see a specialist (such as an allergist or clinical immunologist) for the allergy testing.3

Dealing with dog allergies as a dog owner

If you know you have a dog allergy then the best way to avoid triggering your allergy is to not buy or adopt a dog. However, if you already have a dog, you can avoid the drastic option of giving your beloved companion away by taking certain measures around the home and considering medication. If you do not have a dog but plan to welcome a canine companion to your family, consider choosing a breed that triggers less severe symptoms.

Minimise contact

Taking steps to minimise exposure to allergens will reduce symptoms. Other things you can do include cordoning off your bedroom, bed, and other personal areas, and make sure the dog is not allowed in these spaces. Though allergens will still spread into these areas through air currents and people’s clothing, not allowing your dog to spend time in these areas will minimise the amount of dander.

Keep canine companions off the couch

Train your dog to stop jumping on the couch, beds, or any upholstered furniture, as these can be rich depositories for dander and therefore may contribute to allergic symptoms. Allergen-resistant bedding and furniture can help reduce dander levels.4 Keep your dog’s bedding in a dedicated zone or room in the house, well away from the spaces that the allergic family member tends to spend the most time in. Wash your dog’s rugs, beds, cushions, blankets, and washable play items and toys regularly to avoid dander build-up.

Have your dog spend some time outdoors

Dogs, in contrast to cats, are a social species that do not do well outside away from the family for prolonged periods of time.5 However, one option to consider if your symptoms are very severe is to keep your canine family member outside for a few hours each day, perhaps when the allergic family member is most likely to be using shared spaces such as the kitchen and living room. If you do keep them outside, remember to provide them with plenty of shelter, water, and protection from the elements.

If you would prefer not to keep your pet outside, you might be able to achieve a similar result by quarantining your dog in a dedicated area when the allergic family member is using shared spaces.

Change clothes after contact

If you come into contact with your dog by petting or hugging them, wash your hands thoroughly, change your clothes, or take a shower to remove allergens and reduce the risk of having an allergic reaction.

Bathe and brush pets regularly

Have a non-allergic family member take your canine family member outside and brush him or her thoroughly at least once a week. Regular brushing and bathing can minimise dander levels on your dog and therefore deposits around the house, so make sure your pet is well washed and groomed.3 However, it’s important to note that if washed too frequently your dog’s skin and coat may dry out, so try to only bathe them when necessary to avoid skin issues.6 If you are worried about how often you should be bathing your dog, it’s recommended that you speak with your vet for their advice. Use a hypoallergenic or oatmeal-based dog shampoo for best results, and remember to wash their bedding at the same time.6

Dust and clean often

To keep dander levels around the house to a minimum, have a regular dusting and cleaning program in place. In addition to cleaning your pet’s beds, toys, and blankets, for best results you should wash your own bedding, comforters, and sheets in hot water weekly.4 This will help you allergen-proof your bedroom and other areas.

Other items to clean, vacuum, or dust on a regular basis include your drapes, curtains, and furniture. Carpet cleaning is of course essential, but also keep items such as stuffed animals, sofa throws, and cushions clean, as these can also be powerful reservoirs for dander.

Using a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter4 or a high quality secondary filter4 for your cleaning can help you achieve the best outcomes. Additionally, it’s probably best to vacuum only when the family member with the allergy is not at home, as vacuuming agitates surfaces and temporarily fills the air with allergens, including dander.

Use an air filter

Use portable or whole house air filters. HEPA-standard filters are the best types of air filters available. While high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters tend to be more expensive, they may be more effective at removing allergens than standard vacuum cleaners. However, they may lead to a temporary increase in dust mite allergens in the air.7 If you use a portable machine, focus on the areas where the allergic family member spends the most time in. If you have a whole house filter, make sure you set it to clean the air well before you get up or get home.

Research before you buy a dog

If you have not bought a dog and you know you have a dog allergy, make sure you do plenty of research before making a decision. It could be worthwhile to house-sit the breed you are thinking about adopting or buying before you actually bring a new dog home. This way, you can be certain that you can live comfortably with your new dog over the long term. Keep in mind, it is rare for allergy suffers to completely adjust to living with their dogs except for children, who may outgrow their allergies.8

Also, remember it’s possible that you are allergic to a number of different allergens, not just dogs and dander. These can include dust, insecticides, pollen, and cigarette smoke. Get tested before making any major decisions.

Seek treatment

If you are considering medical treatment there are various options you can discuss with your doctor. Allergy shots or immunotherapy is one option, but while these can reduce or minimise symptoms, they are not able to fully eliminate them.8 This option works by gradually desensitising your immune system to dander by injecting allergy-causing agents under your skin. Depending on the severity of the condition, these shots are usually administered once a week for a period of time – such as a few weeks or a couple of months – and then follow-up doses once a month.

Other treatment options include steroids, antihistamine sprays or pills. Talk with your GP and/or allergist about what possible treatment options are right for you.

How long does it take?

Be patient as you clean out your home and start with your dander-minimisation practices. It’s unlikely that you will be able to have instant relief from your allergy symptoms, even with vigilant housecleaning.

Find a less allergenic breed

While completely allergy-free breeds do not exist, some are considered more allergy-friendly than others as the nature of their coat or fur allows them to shed less dander and therefore release less symptom-inducing allergens.7 Remember, it’s possible to live with a dog even if you have a dog allergy, as long as you have a program for cleaning and managing allergens. Choosing the right breed can also help.

How different dog breeds rate for those with dog allergies

There’s no way to be 100% certain that a particular breed will not cause an allergic reaction. However some dogs are believed to trigger less allergy symptoms than others due to the nature of their coats.9 By spending some time with the dog before you buy or adopt, you may be able to determine how certain you are before committing.

These are some well-known breeds to look out for if you have allergies, as well as popular breeds with single-layered coats you can consider adopting if you are sensitive to dog allergens.

Breeds that shed less

Australian Terrier

The Australian Terrier is a smaller breed with a coarse-haired coat and topknot that makes it a wonderful watchdog and family companion. This breed is easy to care for provided you do some regular brushing and light trimming.10

Maltese

The Maltese is another small dog with a silky, flat coat11 which may make it suitable for those with allergies.

Miniature Poodle

The Miniature Poodle could be a suitable dog for those with dog allergies as it is low-shedding.12 This intelligent breed has a curly coat that can be left to cord or clipped.

Irish Terrier

The Irish Terrier is known for being a hypoallergenic or non-allergenic breed.13 While it has a double coat, it is relatively low shedding and has dense, wiry hair that requires less maintenance.13

Tibetan Terrier

This intelligent, affectionate, social dog has a double-layered coat14 but is considered to be a low-shedding breed, which makes it suitable for those with allergies.

Airedale Terrier

The Airedale Terrier is the second largest of all terriers and is considered a low shedder15 that could be suitable for families with dog allergies. Intelligent with a strong personality, this dog makes a playful companion animal.