There is never a shortage of well-meaning people who will tell you that “You can’t keep a dog if you have…” The sentence usually ends with either “…a baby” or “…allergies.” I’ve already dealt with the kid issue in Can Dogs and Babies Grow Up Together Safely (yes, they can), so this time around I thought it might be a good idea to dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding dog owners and allergies, and offer some suggestions for allergy sufferers who are not prepared to give up having canine friends.
Statistics show that 10%-15% of Americans are allergic to companion animals. This notwithstanding, ¼ of people who have allergies or other issues, like asthma, that could compromise their breathing ability, also have pets. And according to an SPCA study, only one person out of five, when advised by their doctor to get rid of a pet, will actually follow the doctor’s advice. In fact, out of 341 people surveyed, 122 got another pet following the death of the first one, again flying in the face of medical advice.
What this tells us is that people can, and do, manage to enjoy the benefits of pet ownership even when allergies present a significant health issue. It is important, though, to take steps to minimize the risk. So, with that in mind, here are 7 strategies you should employ if you want to enjoy the companionship of a dog without sneezing your head off or struggling to breathe.
1. Find a Specialist
As well-meaning as your general practitioner may be, it’s possible that he or she doesn’t really know all that much about allergies, and could be jumping the gun in telling you to get rid of your dog. Or maybe your doctor just doesn’t like animals and is taking the easiest approach to the problem because, hey, it’s no hardship giving up a dog, right?
Either way, you should see someone who specializes in allergies, who can advise you on the best way to manage your condition, and who understands that giving up your dog is non-negotiable.
A specialist can also help you to determine exactly what it is you’re allergic to. You could also be experiencing problems from exposure to non-animal sources like pollen, mold, mildew and more – your dog may actually be the least of the problem.
2. Be Careful with Handling and Grooming
Believe it or not, hair is not the problem; it’s what the hair can contain – in other words, dander. So, if you have allergies, wear a dust-filtering mask when you’re grooming. You might also want to wear gloves. Wash your hands as soon as you’ve finished grooming so that you don’t accidentally transfer the allergens that are on your hands to your nose, eyes or mouth.
If you can, groom your dog outdoors. If that’s not possible, then groom on a hard surface. I’m assuming that if you have allergies, you have already removed carpets from your home, so sweep or vacuum and then mop the floor after grooming. An occasional bath as part of your grooming routine can also help to reduce dander. Between baths, you can use a damp paper towel to wipe down your dog’s coat, or even better, invest in a package of the allergy wipes that you can find in most pet supply stores.
The other solution could be to have someone else groom your dog for you. Certainly this will make it easier to control your allergic reactions, but it also deprives you of valuable bonding time with your dog, so I’d consider it only as a last resort.
3. Clean Vigorously
If you have allergies, or if someone in your household does, then you’re probably already holding yourself to a higher standard of cleanliness than the average person. If you have a dog, though, you’ll probably need to take it up another notch. Here’s how:
- Wear a mask when cleaning.
- When you vacuum, use double bags or HEPA filters, and get rid of them before they’re too full. If possible, have someone who does not suffer from allergies dispose of the bags. After vacuuming, run your central air or your furnace for a couple of hours.
- Dust frequently, using damp wipes to keep dust and dander from re-settling.
- At least twice a week, thoroughly clean any parts of the house where the dog spends a lot of time.
- Hot-launder your dog’s bedding regularly.
- Wash your dog’s toys in hot water regularly. This is to remove saliva, which can also carry allergens.
The other thing you could do, although I know it probably won’t please you any more than it would please me, is keep your dog off any upholstered furniture. If you’re not prepared to do that, then use furniture throws and wash them frequently.
4. Control the Environment in Your Home
In the case of severe allergies, unfortunately, the affected person’s bedroom should be off-limits to the dog. For most people, the body’s natural resistance is lowest during the night, and if the allergies are compounded by asthma, sleeping with the dog could cause a serious reaction.
Many people find that they can get a great deal of relief from air purifiers and air filters that are designed to remove airborne particles. Also, you can use pleated air filters and place them on air ducts. Change them at least every two months.
If you haven’t already gotten rid of any carpet in your home, do it. Replace it with wood, vinyl, tile or other smooth, hard flooring. Carpet holds all manner of dander, dust and other allergens, and you’ll never get rid of it all with vacuuming. Even steam cleaning isn’t all that effective.
In addition to your dog, keep in mind that there are any number of household products that can trigger allergic reactions, so refrain from using air fresheners, highly scented cleaning products and other items that could exacerbate the effects of pet dander.
It’s also a good idea to make sure the air in your home circulates, so if you’re not overly sensitive to outdoor allergens, open the windows and air out the house once in a while. Don’t rely on ceiling fans to circulate air, though – the tops of the blades gather dust, and then the fans simply blast it through the house.
5. Supplement Your Dog’s Diet
I’m assuming you’re already feeding a good quality dog food, so that’s half the battle. If you supplement your dog’s diet with Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, though, this will help your dog’s skin to retain moisture, which helps to reduce dander. In addition, if your dog should happen to develop skin problems, see your vet. Conditions like dermatitis and mange can make the allergens in the dander more troublesome, and can also even increase the potency of urine- and saliva-borne allergens.
6. Don’t Make the Dog Live Outdoors
This is another dictum that doctors love to hand out – “If you’re not going to get rid of the dog, he’s going to have to be kept outside.” Not only is this a horrible thing to do to a dog (see Can Dogs Live Outdoors Full Time?), it could actually aggravate your allergies if you bring the dog back inside periodically. This is because an outdoor dog’s health is simply never as good as that of an indoor dog, and his body chemistry will change in such a way as to make the allergens he already carries even more potent. He’s also going to be exposed to outdoor allergens that will build up on his skin, and any time you interact with the dog, you’ll actually be picking up more allergens than you would if you’d simply kept him inside in the first place.
The fact is, doctors don’t know everything. More on this in the next section.
7. Keep Things in Perspective
Although allergies and asthma have existed from time immemorial, modern medical research into causes and treatments only began around 1930, and is still a work in progress. Several treatments have fallen in and out of favor, the most recent being the inoculations that were touted in the mid-1980s as being a cure for allergies, and which are now believed to cause adult-onset asthma in the children who were forced by doctors and parents to take the shots. So, we still don’t know everything when it comes to allergies.
What we do know, though, is that people who have allergies and asthma are almost always reactive to more than one substance. It’s probably not just your dog’s dander – you could also be allergic, as suggested previously, to pollen, mildew or mold. You could also react to certain plants, cleaning products, cosmetics and food. The severity of your symptoms will depend on how many allergens you’re exposed to at any given time – if it’s not that many, you may exhibit little reaction, or even none at all. On the other hand, if you’re exposed to a good many allergens, you will inevitably have a more severe allergic reaction.
When you take these factors into consideration, it is simply unconscionable for a doctor to adopt the knee-jerk recommendation that you “get rid of your dog.” Even if you are allergic to the dog’s dander, parting with your dog is no guarantee that you will be allergy-free in the future, and other measures should always be tried. More than one family has faced the heartbreak of giving up a pet, on the recommendation of their doctor, and then discovered that the allergy symptoms persisted. So, the problem isn’t solved, but the companionship of a beloved animal is lost.
Of course there are a few situations (not many) in which the allergies are so severe that the sufferer may have to give up his or her dog, but this will still only be one step of several that are needed to alleviate the problem. The reality is that most of the time, other measures will work to ease the condition. Also, if you’re prone, as many are, to assume that “Doctor knows best,” consider this – according to research done at Johns Hopkins, it’s estimated that mistakes made by doctors result in 250,000 preventable deaths in the US in any given year. Or, stated another way, the third highest cause of death in America is medical error. Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?
The Final Word
We know more now about how to control allergies and asthma than we ever did, and that knowledge enables most sufferers to keep their dogs. Managing the condition requires a high level of hygiene, grooming the dog effectively, proper control of the home environment, and frequently the services of an allergy specialist who can develop a plan of treatment. Once the treatment plan is in place, adhere to it and make sure to keep your medication close by at all times.
Giving up your dog before making every effort to find another way is quite simply a bad idea. For one thing, it will bring you unhappiness. For another, if you have children, it teaches them that pets are disposable. It also teaches them to bow to authority (the doctor) without questioning, and to always choose the easiest way of solving a problem. If children are the ones with allergies, they may also feel guilt – if they’d just worked a little harder at being healthy, they reason, then Mom and Dad wouldn’t have had to give the dog away. There’s not one single good “life lesson” to be learned here.
So, before you give up your dog because of allergies, think it through. Decide if you can commit to a regimen designed to reduce the complications caused by allergies or asthma, and then bring the whole family on board. If everyone pitches in and helps with the 7 strategies identified, there’s a better than good chance that you will be able to keep your dog.