For many people with asthma, especially children, it is an allergy that brings on (‘triggers’) their asthma symptoms.
In this situation, exposure to the substance to which you are allergic (the ‘allergen’) is considered to be an asthma trigger. For many people with asthma, touching and stroking an animal, or just being in the same room as a pet or where that pet has been, can trigger a reaction.
This is because of an allergy to the animal’s dander (skin scales or flakes from the fur or feathers of animals), or even their saliva or urine. In homes with pets, dander makes up a large component of household dust and it can float in the air and settle on surfaces around the home, so you may not even need to have contact with the pet itself to trigger a reaction.
Some people with asthma may also find they are allergic to other animals with which they come into regular contact, such as horses, goats, cows, chickens and ducks, even though these are kept outside.
However, the jury is still out on whether or not exposure to pets in childhood increases the risk of developing asthma — the research findings on this topic are mixed.
Your doctor can organise special skin or blood tests to diagnose allergies to animals, if necessary. Skin prick tests are convenient and simple to do. A drop of an extract of the substance thought to be causing the allergy (allergen) is put on the skin and a needle is then pricked through the drop of allergen into the skin. The size of the inflamed area of the skin — called a wheal and flare reaction — indicates the strength of the allergic reaction.
If necessary, one method of testing for pet allergy is to remove your pet from the home for a number of weeks, and thoroughly clean the home. However, it can mean weeks of cleaning to remove all the animal dander before a change in the allergy is obvious. It’s estimated that once a cat is removed from a house, it may take 3–4 months of regular cleaning to remove cat allergen.
If you can’t avoid being around the animals to which you are allergic, then perhaps allergy injections, or immunotherapy, would help you. Allergen extract injections can be administered for allergies to cats, dogs, cows, horses, chicken, duck and goose feathers and sheep wool, as well as house dust and dust mites.
Allergy injections should be given only under the guidance of your doctor or specialist because of the potential for serious side effects. If you respond to the injections, they usually need to be continued for about 3 years.
Although experts are not yet certain whether removing pet allergens improves asthma symptoms, there are a number of lifestyle changes that you can make to try to lessen the effects of your pet.
However, before you make any decision about the future of the family pet, see your doctor if you suspect that you, or a member of your family, might be allergic to your pet.
Last Reviewed: 30 August 2007