Pet Allergies and Kids: What Parents Need to Know
Pet allergies are your body’s physical reaction to an animal. People are primarily allergic to pet dander (an animal’s skin flakes), but they can also be allergic to a pet’s feces, urine and saliva.
Allergic reactions to dander are not due to the animal’s fur, because fur itself is not an allergen. Fur does trap pollen and dust; however, and the skin flakes that make up dander can trigger allergic reactions. If your child has pet allergies and breathes in dander or comes in contact with saliva or other less “benign” features of a pet (i.e., droppings), his body will go on alert and may release histamine and other chemicals in response. Histamine acts by inflaming the nose and airways and cause the well-known allergy symptoms of a runny nose, watery eyes and sneezing.
How Do I Know If My Child is Allergic to Animals?
Good question! If your child seems to have year-round symptoms such as nasal congestion, runny nose, itchy or watery eyes and frequent sneezing indoors (as opposed to just having them happen at certain times of the year), these are signs that your child may have an allergy to dust mites, mold, or your pet. In the case of year-round symptoms, you will need to do a little work, with your allergist’s help, to determine if it’s your pet or something else causing the reactions.
Before scheduling that appointment though, do a little detective work yourself. First, watch your child playing with the pet. You want to try to pay attention to how he is before and after being in contact with the animal. It might also help to have your child spend time away from the house, say a weekend sleepover at Grandma’s or some other place without pets to determine if the symptoms have cleared up. When you re-introduce him to the pet, pay attention to his body’s reaction. By the way, just removing the pet won’t help — there is likely plenty of pet dander left around to trigger a reaction in the animal’s absence.
If you believe that your pet is causing the allergies, it’s time to schedule that appointment. Depending on the symptoms, we may prescribe an antihistamine to handle the reactions. But if the symptoms are more intense, then you will want to find out exactly what your child is allergic to and what the best treatment options are. It can be a very difficult decision, but if Fido is the culprit, one course of action, in addition to treatment, is to find a new home for your pet.
The way allergists determine what your child is allergic to is commonly through a skin prick or skin scratch test, also known as allergy testing. Although it looks like it hurts, in reality it only involves small indentations or “pricks” on the upper layer of the skin. The allergist places a drop of an allergen extract at each scratch location. These extracts include animal dander, mites, pollens, and plant and food extracts. If your child is allergic to any of the extracts, the allergist will look for small bumps like mosquito bites. These bumps are an immunologic reaction to the extract and are indicative of allergies.
Once all of the testing is done, the only definitive way to know for certain if the family pet is an issue is to remove the pet from your home and do a deep cleaning (especially of the carpets and anywhere the pet has slept). Although direct exposure to your pet may be over, it can take up to six months for the allergen levels in your house to fall enough to stop the reactions.
Is it Possible to Prevent My Child from Developing an Allergy to Our Pet?
Probably not — some children are genetically predisposed to develop some sort of allergy. But if your family is set on having a pet then then do your best to keep the indoor environment as clean and as free of dander as possible
Also, be prepared for allergy symptoms to appear later on. It can take months of exposure before a child begins to have reactions to an animal.
Are Some Pets More Allergenic or Problematic Than Others?
Although it would seem like some breeds or species of animals would be more problematic than others, there is no scientific evidence to prove that. Even though some old wives’ tales say that short-haired animals are less allergenic than their long-haired counterparts, this isn’t true since it’s not the fur but the dander (skin cells) that causes the reactions. Keeping your pet well groomed and washed can help prevent dander shedding, but that won’t entirely eliminate the risk of allergic reaction.
One reason people believe cats are more of a problem is because their dander is harder to avoid. Cat dander is smaller and more “sticky” than dog dander. This allows it travel further through the air and stay on surfaces longer.
Some parents opt for small pets like hamsters or other rodents for their allergic children, but even these animals can lead to allergies when children come in contact with their droppings or other body fluids. Think about their environment: when they’re in their cages they cannot avoid their droppings. This gets in their fur and then can cause reactions when your child handles them.
Birds are a somewhat different story. Although extremely rare, bird droppings can cause a chronic reaction known as “bird-fancier’s lung.” Symptoms include progressive shortness of breath, fatigue and scarring of lung tissues. More commonly, we often treat patients who are allergic to the feathers for the bird.
If a pet is a “must-have,” consider our scaly friends: fish and reptiles. Some types of lizards can be very easy to care for, easy to clean and are very friendly. They still don’t make the perfect pet, though: reptiles can carry salmonella, so may not be best suited for small children.
If you do opt for this type of pet, you should follow a few basic safety tips. Make sure your child washes his or her hands after playing with the pet, don’t kiss the pet, and keep the pet in a regularly cleaned cage that’s away from your dining area.
What’s the Best Way to Treat Pet Allergies?
The best treatment option depends on the kinds of reactions your child has to his pet. Typically, for any sort of respiratory allergic reaction, you can get a prescription medicine to counter the symptoms. Please be aware that some people think they can just take an over-the-counter product such as Benadryl, but these often have undesirable side effects, such as drowsiness. There are several non-drowsy preparations available over the counter.
Allergen immunotherapy, or “allergy shots”, is the ultimate allergy therapy for many people with allergies. It works by retraining the immune system to be more tolerant of environmental allergens. Immunotherapy is a long-term solution and often provides decades of relief. This is most beneficial in cases where someone cannot avoid exposure to the animal or if the allergic reactions cannot be relieved with medications.
What Else Can Be Done to Minimize Exposure to Pet Allergens?
Realistically, you may not be able to avoid all of the common allergens, but there are some steps you can take to reduce exposure:
Let pets out of the house as often as possible. If that’s not possible, try to restrict your pet to non-carpeted areas of the house and definitely keep it out of your child’s bedroom. Also keep pets off of furniture! The upholstery on your couch is a pet-dander magnet.
Invest in an air cleaner or purifier, and/or upgrade your filters. Keeping the tabby cat to one room won’t solve the problem in the other rooms. Air currents still spread the allergens, but you can fit your heating and air conditioning system with an upgraded filter. This alone won’t solve all problems, however, since the pet dander that has fallen on surfaces isn’t airborne.
Perform a thorough cleaning regularly. Upholstered furniture, carpets, bedding and even your walls can capture pet dander. If possible, remove carpeted flooring and replace with hard-surface flooring. If this isn’t feasible, make sure you vacuum and dust regularly (every other day is good); this will go a long way toward reducing the amount of allergens in your house.
Change your child’s clothes after he is done playing with the pet. Have your child wash his hands regularly and have him avoid touching his eyes or other sensitive parts of his face prone to a reaction. Make sure your child bathes or showers before bed to avoid bringing the allergens into his room and bedding.
We realize that pets often become part of the family and getting rid of them may not be possible. However, if your child is prone to pet allergies, you do have some decisions to make. All of the medications, immunotherapy and cleaning measures won’t guarantee the eradication of your child’s allergies, but with proper care and treatment, you can keep allergies under control.
If you believe you or your child has pet allergies, contact Allergy and Asthma Specialists of North Florida today at 904-730-4870 or on our site at www.JaxAllergy.com and schedule an appointment.