In the middle of a Venn diagram comparing fiercely loyal dog people and those who remain stubbornly convinced cats are superior, you’ll find people who adore animals but are also allergic. That doesn’t necessarily stop people in this predicament from sharing a roof with one (or many) furry soul mates.
If you’re one of those people who’s hella allergic to your pet, you already know this. Although your pet can breathe fresh, joyful energy into your life, she can also make it hard to…well, breathe. There has to be a way not to come under allergy-symptom siege every time you curl up next to your best friend. We spoke with three allergists to find out how.
- Get tested for allergies so you know for sure what’s causing your symptoms.
In the case of pets, the allergy has nothing to do with fur, as many people believe. Rather, it comes down to animal dander, an otherwise harmless protein found in a pet’s skin, saliva, and urine, according to the Mayo Clinic. Your pet can spread dander all over your place when she scratches behind her ears, chases a favorite toy around the room, and otherwise lives a delightful animal life. Lovely!
It’s easy to only think of dander when it comes to cats and dogs, but there is a whole world of pet possibilities out there, people. Parakeets, horses…pretty much every animal with feathers or fur has dander, Alice Hoyt, M.D., an allergist in the allergy and clinical immunology department at Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF.
That’s why all the hype about hypoallergenic pets contains more baloney than the average third grader’s sandwich. A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Rhinology and Allergy looked at 190 one-dog homes and found no difference in the concentration of allergens in homes with “hypoallergenic” breeds compared to other dog breeds. This makes perfect sense, because length of fur, shedding, and other similar variables don’t affect the amount of dander a pet has, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI).
So, where does allergy testing come in? Well, you might be positive you’re allergic to pet dander but actually reacting to a different houesehold allergen, like dust mites or mold spores. A lot of allergy tips—including many of the ones on this list—revolve around a specific allergen, so it’s best to get tested and make sure you know what your body is objecting to before moving forward.
- Keep your pets out of the bedroom.
Sorry, but no using your dog as a body pillow. When you’re allergic, the bedroom should be completely off limits, Martha F. Hartz, M.D., pediatric allergist-immunologist at Mayo Clinic, tells SELF. You’ve got a better chance of rest and recuperation when your sleep chamber has a low allergy load, she says.
- Clean your carpets and rugs at least once a week.
If you’re looking to reduce the amount of dander in your home, focus on spots that tend to be magnets for it, like carpets and rugs, Taha Al-Shaikhly, M.D., an allergy and immunology fellow at UW Medicine, tells SELF. Make sure to vacuum carpets once a week with a device that has a HEPA filter. These suck up tiny bits of matter, like pet dander, that other vacuums might miss, according to the AAAAI. On a similar note, if you have rugs, launder those once a week.
Pet dander can also stick to hard surfaces like walls and floors, so be sure to clean those regularly based on the proper care instructions for the materials in question.
- Use a HEPA air purifier.
HEPA vacuums can help when it comes to carpets, but if you have a pet, dander is probably all around you. HEPA air purifiers can reduce allergens floating in the air, Dr. Al-Shaikhly says, and keeping one in the area where your pet hangs out the most might help cut back on your allergy symptoms.
- Try to keep your pet off lounging areas like the sofa.
Upholstered furniture can also attract dander, so keep your pets off the couch and similar pieces of furniture, Dr. Hoyt says. We know, easier said than done. “If they do go on, [make] sure you vacuum every week,” Dr. Hoyt adds. The AAAAI also recommends covering furniture with towels or blankets that can be washed regularly.
- Bathe your pet regularly (or take her to the groomer).
Dr. Hartz suggests bathing your pet every one to two weeks to help reduce the allergy load they’re carrying around. Er, we’re sorry about the cat scratches in advance? OK, to be fair, bathing your pet might not be feasible depending on their disposition, so this one’s really up to you.
- Keep your allergy medications readily available.
For instance, keep antihistamines on hand. Histamine—the chemical your immune system releases when it bumps up against an allergen—is a big part of what makes allergies miserable, so getting on a nondrowsy 24-hour antihistamine may help manage the worst of your symptoms, Dr. Hoyt says.
Depending on where your symptoms strike, you should keep treatments like soothing eye drops and nasal sprays around to specifically target those areas. Thoroughly read the instructions before using them, though. For instance, if you use nasal sprays that actively constrict swollen blood vessels for more than three days in a row, you can wind up with an unpleasant condition sometimes referred to as rebound congestion, or rhinitis medicamentosa, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- Consider allergy shots.
Allergy shots, also known as immunotherapy, are regular injections of small amounts of your allergy triggers over a period of three to five years, according to the Mayo Clinic. “Over time, we’re slowly convincing the immune system that those allergens are fine,” Dr. Hoyt says. You’ll need a shot as frequently as twice a week to as little as once every four weeks depending on factors like the phase of treatment you’re in, according to the AAAAI.
The AAAAI notes that immunotherapy’s effectiveness varies from symptom reduction to total relief from allergy symptoms after treatment. But if you have the time and your allergist thinks you’re a good candidate, they could help transform your life.
- Know when it’s time to re-home your pet.
In a decidedly less cuddly reality where pets weren’t basically relatives, the first line of defense for a pet allergy would be clear: “The best way to avoid pet allergies to remove the pets from the environment,” Dr. Al-Shaikhly explains.
But pets can be like family. Allergists understand that, which is why they’re often willing to work with you to manage your symptoms in order to keep your beloved pet in your life.
There is a limit, though. If you have severe or poorly controlled asthma that your dander allergy triggers, it’s probably time to find a new home for your pet, Dr. Hartz says. “Asthma can be life-threatening,” she explains. Severe or poorly controlled asthma is critical enough that any and all measures to improve your environmental triggers need to be taken, she explains.
If you do find yourself in a situation where you need to rehome your pet, it may help you to know that pets are resilient, Joseph Turk, D.V.M, tells SELF. That doesn’t mean it won’t take a little work. “Pets give us so much, so we should do our best to find them a loving home if we aren’t able to keep them,” he says.
Friends, family, organizations like the Humane Society and, if applicable, breed-specific rescue groups are good options. No matter which avenue you choose, he recommends doing your due diligence to make sure wherever you place your pet has the knowledge and resources to take care of them.