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Cat and dog allergy

3-minute read

Allergies to cats and dogs are common, and symptoms range from mild to severe. These symptoms can include hay fever, asthma and hives. While avoiding exposure is the simplest solution, treatment can help you manage your contact with pets.

What is pet allergy?

Pet allergies occur when the immune system reacts to the saliva, dead skin cells (dander) or urine of pets.

About 1 in 5 people have a pet allergy. Most are allergic to cats or dogs, but you can also be allergic to other domestic animals, such as guinea pigs, mice, rats, horses and birds. Allergies are particularly common in people who handle pets as part of their job. Some people are allergic to more than one animal.

People with a pet allergy are also likely to have other allergies — for example, to pollen and dust mites. Pet allergies can develop at any time during childhood or adulthood, but some people will grow out of them.

How does pet allergy occur?

Pet allergens (the substances that cause the allergic reaction) are most concentrated in homes with pets. But they are also found in buildings and public spaces without pets.

Dog allergens largely come from their saliva, either directly from licking or from being transferred to their dander or hair. Cat allergens mainly come from glands in their skin and are spread through licking and grooming.

Pet allergens are sticky and can remain for months or years after a pet has gone. They can become airborne and attach to clothes and hair.

People can become sensitive to, or have an allergic reaction to, cats or dogs without ever having owned a pet.

Symptoms of pet allergy

Pet allergy can cause:

Symptoms might appear as soon as you pat a cat or dog, or they might take a few hours to appear.

Pet allergies are rarely life-threatening. But if you think someone is having a severe reaction such as anaphylaxis, and their breathing is affected, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

How is pet allergy diagnosed?

A diagnosis of pet allergy is made based on your medical history and a physical examination. Your doctor might refer you to an allergy specialist for a skin-prick test or blood test for confirmation.

Avoid online or over-the-counter allergy test kits or other unconventional allergy tests. Many are not evidence-based, and don’t provide accurate results.

In particular, avoid unproven tests and treatments such as applied kinesiology, the Vega test, hair analysis, serum-specific IgG tests, Nambudripad's Allergy Elimination Techniques (NAET), and cytotoxic tests such as ALCAT, FACT and Bryan’s test. 

See your doctor for advice.

Living with pet allergy

The best solution to pet allergies is to avoid exposure — for example, by not having a pet in your home.

If you do want a pet, you can reduce your exposure to allergens by:

  • washing your hands and clothes thoroughly after contact
  • purifying the air with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter
  • keeping your pet out of the bedroom
  • having a hard floor surface rather than carpet

It’s a good idea to ask someone without pet allergies to, at least once a week:

  • wash the pet
  • clean carpets, furniture and curtains with a good vacuum cleaner
  • wash pillow cases and bedding

If you can’t avoid exposure, you might be able to treat the symptoms with medication, such as:

Another option is immunotherapy, which is also known as 'desensitisation'. It's offered by a specialist known as an immunologist, and takes 3 to 5 years to complete.

Avoid smoking, because this can make allergies worse.

For more information

Last reviewed: May 2018

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