Fur-get about it

Think your shih tzu’s got you sneezing? You may be right—but it isn’t fido’s fluff you need to be worrying about

You’re tired of your itchy eyes and runny nose, and—achoo!—those sneezing spells are definitely getting on your nerves. You wonder if you’ve caught the cold that never ends, although lately you’ve begun to suspect another culprit. It seems that the more you cuddle your corgi, the more you’re prone to sneeze and itch and cough. Could you be allergic to that sweet, snuggly ball of fluff? Say it ain’t so.

So off you go to the allergy doctor, who confirms without a doubt that the dog is the reason for your—hack, hack, honk—persistent cough and nasal congestion. Not exactly what you wanted to hear. The good news, however, is that your symptoms can be controlled. And it’s possible that, with treatment, your body could develop a tolerance to the allergen in question.

Although this won’t make your nose any less drippy, there may be a modicum of comfort in knowing that at least a third of the 50 million diagnosed allergy patients in the United States share your discomfort. Many have owned a pet for some time and were likely unaware of any allergies because the symptoms mimic those of a cold and other respiratory ailments, says Dr. Blake Scheer of the Little Rock Allergy and Asthma Clinic. Even if you have a “hypoallergenic” dog—a breed like the bichon frisé, Airedale, poodle or Portuguese water dog—you may not be immune. These low-shedding pups might provoke fewer symptoms, but they still have skin, and that means they still carry the trigger: dander.

People mistakenly believe that fur is responsible for their symptoms, but Scheer says the allergen that causes the immune-system overreaction commonly known as an allergy attack is actually a protein in the animal’s dander, aka the microscopic flakes of skin a dog or cat sheds every second, leaving a trail of sinus-clogging particles imperceptible to the naked, yet watering, eye. Over time, dander accumulates in carpets, curtains, walls, cracks, crevices and bedding—yours and the pet’s. And while the most obvious approach to treating an allergy is to decrease exposure to the sneeze-inducing animal, that’s not exactly a welcome answer for those with furkids at home.

“When I tell people to get rid of their pet because of an allergy, they are about 10 times more likely to get rid of me than their pet,” Scheer says. Fortunately, re-homing a pet isn’t the only option (the exception would be when the presence of an animal would be dangerous for an asthma sufferer who also has a pet allergy). There are a number of therapies and strategies for creating a relatively symptom-free life with pets, including environmental changes and injections of allergens to boost resistance.

Avoiding exposure to the offending allergen is the first step. “Getting the pet out of the bedroom or any other place where you spend most of your day is very important,” Scheer explains. Another way to lessen exposure to dander is to remove it from the home with a HEPA-filter vacuum, or by installing an air-filtration device or system. Allergists recommend replacing wall-to-wall carpeting with hardwood, tile or vinyl because slick surfaces are easier to keep free of dander. They also advise regularly wiping down walls and woodwork with a damp cloth.

Scheer says over-the-counter antihistamines and nasal sprays provide short-term relief of symptoms, but immunotherapy—weekly injections of a serum created from allergy-causing animal proteins—provides more lasting results. Over time, a person will develop tolerance to the offending protein so that being around an animal doesn’t bring on an allergy attack. “The results for people allergic to cats are really, really good,” he says, explaining that there is only one feline protein responsible for allergies. But shots for people allergic to dogs have proven to be less effective. There are innumerable canine proteins that trigger attacks, so a person might be sensitive to one dog protein but not another. That explains why you might sneeze when your dog tries to snuggle but not while petting your neighbor’s dog.

Because the cat allergen is so easily identifiable, researchers have high hopes for a single-shot treatment—instead of a series—that’s being tested to help people allergic to cats. Sadly, there’s nothing similar on the horizon for people whose sniffles and sneezes are caused by man’s best friend. But whether you’re allergic to cats or dogs, Scheer suggests sticking with tried-and-true strategies for relief: “Allergies can’t be cured, but they can be managed.”