Pets can be your best friends. If you have allergies or asthma, they can also be your worst enemy.
Pets shed dander, a combination of dead skin cells and hair (or feathers), which can trigger asthma attacks and allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to the allergens. (Cold-blooded pets, such as snakes and turtles, do not produce dander.)
Some guidelines recommend that people with allergies or asthma avoid keeping pets – especially cats. If a doctor says that you – or your child’s – allergies or asthma are aggravated by dander, you may ultimately need to find a new home for your pet. However, there are several ways to cut down on pet allergens at home.
You can reduce dander in your home by keeping your pet outdoors as much as possible. At the very least, you should bar pets from bedrooms where people with allergies or asthma sleep.
Children with allergies should also avoid petting or touching animals. If they do come into contact with a pet, they should wash their hands thoroughly.
Restricting pets to rooms with wood floors may also help. Wood flooring traps less dander than carpet and is easier to clean; keeping pets off carpet may help cut down on allergens.
Keeping pets off carpets, upholstered furniture and beds can reduce exposure to dander. (Using allergen-resistant bedding will help fend off any dander that does find its way into bedrooms.) Keeping pets out of cars – or restricting them to the backseat area, if possible – is also a good idea.
In addition, any furniture, fabrics or materials that pets come into contact with should be vacuumed or washed frequently. This includes throw rugs, pet beds, cushions, pillows and blankets.
Dusting as often as possible will keep dander (as well as dust mites and other allergens) to a minimum. Vacuuming, however, may not get all the allergens from the lower levels of a rug, and may stir up a bit of dander. It may help to use vacuums equipped with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter or double bags. However, it’s still a good idea to dust or vacuum when the person with allergies or asthma is not at home.
Another option would be to replace wall-to-wall carpets with wood floors, which will make it easier to remove dander. However, this may not always be the most feasible option.
If you have forced-air heating and air conditioning, closing air registers may reduce the amount of animal dander that circulates through your home. If closing all of the registers isn’t practical, try closing those in the rooms where asthmatic or allergic individuals spend the most time (especially bedrooms).
Replacing the filter in your furnace or air conditioner with a HEPA filter and/or buying a room air cleaner may also help. However, studies on the effectiveness of these methods have been inconclusive. At least it is worth a try.
Another study shows that frequently bathing your pet reduces the allergens found in their dander.
A 1999 study in the “Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology” compared the levels of allergens in dog dander before and after a five-minute bath with an unnamed “proprietary shampoo.” The researchers found that the bath reduced the dogs’ allergen levels by about 85 percent. But the allergen levels returned to normal in about three days, which suggests that dogs need to be washed at least twice a week.
Similar studies of cats have had mixed but generally less encouraging results.
Though hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, birds, and other pets typically confined to cages tend to be less problematic for allergy and asthma sufferers, dander and urine produced by these pets can still provoke allergic reactions and asthma attacks.
Bird and rodent cages should be cleaned at least once a week and, if possible, cages should be moved outside to a garage or shed. Likewise, litter boxes should be cleaned frequently and moved out of living areas.