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How to keep a pet even if you’re allergic to them

Approx. 8 minutes read

It’s not all that uncommon for people to have an allergic reaction to their pets. Some of our pet heroes are more allergic to short-haired pets, while others only get watery eyes and runny noses when long-haired pets are around. Or maybe you need to expressly remember not to rub your eyes after touching pet fur? But did you know it’s not necessarily your pets’ fur or hair you’re allergic to?

In this article we’ll explore what makes humans allergic to pets, and what you can do about it without resorting to a pet-free life. (That would just be tragic!)

What makes people allergic to pets?

In general, allergies are the result of your immune system signalling that it’s detected an invader (virus or bacterium) and its defences are activated. Cue tears, inflammation, sneezing, congestion and itchiness, especially of the eyes, nose and the roof of the mouth. But it’s not that you’ve inhaled a dog hair or a bit of cat fur. What you’re really allergic to are the proteins in the dog or cat’s saliva, urine or tiny specs of dried skin (also known as dander).

Since cats groom themselves, the proteins from their saliva as well as their dander may be concentrated on their fur, which increases the likelihood and intensity of an allergic reaction. This is also why there are no truly hypoallergenic dogs or cats – not even the hairless ones. It’s the proteins in their saliva, urine and dander that trigger allergic people’s allergies. And yes – some people are more allergy-prone than others. People with pet allergies very often have other allergies as well – such as allergies to dust, pollen, and certain types of food.

What are the symptoms of a pet allergy?

People who are allergic to pets may have some or all of the following symptoms:

  • itchiness, inflammation and tearing of the eyes and nose
  • swelling and redness in the face
  • watery eyes
  • sneezing
  • runny nose
  • coughing
  • hives/welts on the skin
  • itchy throat/coughing
  • itch on the palate

These symptoms can be triggered by being exposed to pet dander, saliva and/or urine; the proteins of which irritate the soft membranes of the eyes and nasal passages. When the allergic person also suffers from asthma, their allergic reaction to pets may trigger an asthma attack, which includes these symptoms:

  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • tight chest
  • asthmatic cough

The silver lining is that allergic asthma occurs most often during childhood, and by adulthood it tends to go away. Still, it is important that the asthmatic person’s environment is controlled to limit their exposure to pet allergens.

Why am I allergic to dogs?

You love dogs, right? And yet there are few dogs you can get close to without your arms breaking out in welts and your eyes and nose turning runny, red and itchy. Can dogs cause allergies in humans? Dogs can trigger allergies, but the allergic person usually has a predisposition to being allergic. This means that their sensitive immune system is easily triggered by environmental allergens like pet dander, dust, pollen, and other airborne allergens.

So, don’t blame the dog. Shame, it’s not the poor pup’s fault that their beautiful fur coat or friendly licks trigger your allergies. They may make one person completely bunged up and allergic, while the next person can put their whole face in the dog’s coat and not even suffer a sneeze.

How can I stop being allergic to dogs?

Pet parents with newborn human children will be happy to know that there is ongoing research being done to ascertain whether early exposure to pets (i.e. in the first year of life) may help their children become more resistant to pet allergens. This doesn’t mean they won’t have allergies at all, but it merely suggests their risk of upper respiratory tract symptoms from exposure to pets is reduced.

Okay, so that’s for the little ones. But what if you’re already allergic? The old solution was to find the pet a new home because it’s best to remove the allergen, right? Not necessarily. What if the allergy sufferer needs a guide dog, an emotional support pet, or a medic alert pet? What if the allergy sufferer is a pet lover in general? How would this situation be mitigated?

Here are five ways to reduce exposure to pet allergens as a way to limit an allergic reaction to a pet:

1. Keep one area of the home pet-free

Before you even consider living without your beloved dog or cat, commit to keeping one room or area in your home completely pet-free. Pet dander can become airborne and stay in a room and on surfaces for days after the pet has passed through, so it’s best to very strictly maintain a pet-free room as an allergy-free ‘safe zone’. Your bedroom would be the best place to remain pet-free, since this is where you sleep – and it’s best to get good rest without sinus issues from pet allergies. This also means restricting any clothing that may have been exposed to pet fur and dander, to outside the room.

Similarly, train your pet to stay off your furniture by rewarding them (deliciously) for sleeping on their own bedding and blankets. Regularly wash their blankets and bedding to reduce a build-up of fur and dander. It’s a pain, but also vacuum and mop floors regularly for the same reason.

2. Get rid of your carpets

The only ‘pets’ you should remove from your home are your carpets! Carpets can very easily collect and trap pet fur, dander and traces of urine – nevermind dust and pollen if you’re also sensitive to those allergens. Allergy sufferers should rather live in a home with hard floors like tiles, wood flooring or laminate flooring that are easy to sweep, vacuum or mop.

3. Thoroughly wash your hands

It’s also impawtant to prioritise hand-washing. If you’ve petted or played with your dog or cat, their dander and saliva will be most concentrated on your hands, so wash them thoroughly before you transfer any allergens to your face, your phone or any other high-contact zones.

4. Use medications

Don’t just pop a pill every time you plan to walk or play with your furry friend; rather save the antihistamines and nasal corticosteroids for when your allergies are flaring. If your allergic reactions are really intense, get prescription medications or speak to an immunologist about immunotherapy for pet allergies. This type of therapy involves ‘allergy shots’: low-level exposure to very specific allergens to help desensitise your immune system to the allergen. This makes the allergen less triggering and reduces the allergic reaction.

5. Groom your pet regularly to reduce your allergic reactions

Brush your pet daily to remove loose fur, but make sure you do all the brushing and grooming outdoors so that you limit the amount of ‘fall-out’ dander indoors.

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A scientific study was undertaken in 1999 to prove whether washing your dog could limit allergen levels. This theory was proven to be correct, but it was only truly effective if the dog was washed twice a week. Now, while this may be necessary to reduce pet allergens indoors, it might have the detrimental effect of drying out your dog’s skin. In this case, it’s crucial to find the balance between keeping your dog’s skin healthy and reducing your allergic reaction.

Fortunately, there are all kinds of healthy dog shampoos on the market. The best dog shampoo for human allergies needs to check a few boxes. It must:

  • reduce shedding (to minimise your allergen exposure)
  • remove dander
  • nourish your pet’s skin and coat (to avoid drying it out)

Try the following dog shampoos and conditioners that are made for this.

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Can cat litter cause allergies in humans?

Many people have an allergic reaction after being near their cat’s litter. They will therefore try a range of different options – from dust-free cat litter to silicone litter and natural litter – to curb their allergic reaction. A cat litter allergy in humans can be caused by clay dust, fragrances added to cat litter, as well as clumping agents.

If your allergy symptoms flare up only when scooping your cat’s litterbox or when pouring in new cat litter, it’s enough to correlate the allergy with the cat litter. But, it’s also possible that your allergies may be triggered by your cat’s urine. Always take note of when your allergy symptoms appear – only near the litter box or near your cat as well? Are you more sensitive to allergens only at certain times of the year, or when your immune system feels low? It’s difficult enough finding the right cat litter for your cat, but if you’re allergic to your cat rather than her litter, it will save you the hassle of trying to solve the wrong problem. It will be worthwhile speaking to your cat’s veterinarian as well as to your doctor about your allergies.

Natural remedies for pet allergies

It’s easy to pop an antihistamine to reduce your allergy symptoms, but it’s better to minimise the ‘allergen load’ your immune system is exposed to. This doesn’t mean you need to get rid of your cat – it just means finding a happy medium between your cat and your allergies. Let’s explore some natural remedies for cat allergies in humans:

An air purifier

An air purifier, HEPA filter or ioniser will help to keep airborne allergens out of the air you breathe. If you use a bagged vacuum cleaner, be sure to regularly empty out the bag and clean the vacuum’s filter.

A vitamin C boost

Before you reach for the vitamin C supplements, rather eat your vitamins! Give your immune system a boost with citrus fruits, strawberries, blueberries, red pepper, broccoli and kiwi fruit. And don’t forget to stay hydrated – fresh water is also important for a healthy immune system!

Neem oil to soothe itchy skin

If your pet allergies have already been triggered, neem oil is a wonderful natural oil that can help to soothe itchy and inflamed skin.

Try these anti-inflammatory teas

If you’re in the middle of an allergy flare-up, drink soothing herbal teas and save the coffee and Ceylon teas for later. Caffeine is a stimulant and it has inflammatory properties, which can aggravate allergy symptoms. Rather opt for anti-inflammatory teas like green tea, turmeric tea (or delicious turmeric latte with almond milk), ginger tea, fennel tea, and rosehip tea.


Pet allergies don’t have to mean you’ll give up your dog or cat, or that you need to banish your pets to the outdoors. A few lifestyle changes, allergy symptom management, more frequent pet baths and grooming, and maybe even some prescription medication mean that you and your furry friends can still live together as each other’s pet heroes.

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