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Why are we allergic to our pets?

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Tuesday, May 14th 2019, 11:01 am - Your pet may be your best friend, but for those with allergies, that friendship comes with some drawbacks.

Getty pet dog lick face

Getting a pet isn't an easy decision but there's no denying how much joy they can bring. The perks are undeniable, and that love, affection and adoration you get from a dog, cat, rabbit, hamster, guinea pig, gerbil, bird, or even a horse is like nothing else. But aside from the time, energy, and patience needed for owning a pet, there is another aspect that must be carefully considered before taking the plunge: allergies.

There's no way of knowing why we are allergic to our pets, says Dr. Harold Kim, president of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, in the same way we don't know why we're allergic to anything.

"A pet allergy occurs when our immune system overreacts to animal proteins," Dr. Kim explains. "The response is due to antibodies called IgE (Immunoglobulin E). When [our systems] overreact, pet allergens trigger these antibodies to lead to a release of chemicals from allergy cells in our body."

We also don't know why we're allergic to some animals but not all, though Dr. Kim points out that "the amount of allergen released by animals will differ, and some animals may release less allergen."

Contrary to popular belief, it's not the fur or feathers that people are mostly allergic to but, rather, the dander, whether it's skin flakes that come off the animal or the proteins in their saliva. "There is some allergen on the hair," says Dr. Kim, but adds, "the major cat allergen is from saliva and sweat glands." Dogs, on the other hand, vary in allergy risk because not all breeds produce the same universal allergen.

If you suffer from allergies to animals, then you know the symptoms — nasal congestion, sneezing, nasal drip, eye itchiness, tearing and redness, wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and hives. It can be a lot. For obvious reasons, Dr. Kim discourages those who are allergic to pets from getting pets but he admits that some studies have suggested animal exposure may decrease the risk of allergies.

Getty pet cat allergies

"This may occur through desensitization where your body builds immunity," he explains, adding, "Another theory is that animals bring fecal material into the home and this may be protective against allergy."

As for hypoallergenic pets, Dr. Kim acknowledges that "there have been some genetically-engineered animals that may have low levels of major allergen, but generally, there are no truly non-allergic pets." In fact, he warns that "often pets that are marketed and sold as non-allergic pets have higher allergen loads."

For those sufferers who are determined to be pet-owners, and feel the benefits of a furry, fuzzy or feathery family member simply outweigh the drawbacks of allergies, Dr. Kim says using nasal sprays, antihistamines and/or eye drops could do the trick or, at the very least, alleviate symptoms. He also suggests things like "keeping the pet out of the bedroom, washing the pet often and using air filters" but admits that it's unknown whether those tips actually help. So, clearly, the best way to go is to keep your allergy medications readily available.

This article is based on an interview conducted by Denette Wilford on behalf of The Weather Network with Dr. Harold Kim, President of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, an expert in allergic rhinitis, on March 28, 2019.

Sources: Dr. Harold Kim, President of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology

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