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Pet Allergies: 6 Common Questions About Sensitivity To Animals

03/05/2014 04:05 EST | Updated 03/05/2014 04:59 EST
Jennifer Sheets via Getty Images

If dogs make you sneeze and cats make your eyes water, you probably have an allergy to animal dander. And if your solution is just to grin and bear it, you may want to think again.

Pet allergies aren't just an inconvenience -- they're also a risk factor for developing asthma, according to allergist Dr. Mark Greenwald, chair of the medical and scientific committee of the Asthma Society of Canada. Here's the scoop on dog and cat allergies.

Pet Allergy Facts

1. Does keeping pets out of the bedroom work?

We all love our furry friends, but many of us are forced to love them from afar due to our immune systems going haywire when we're too close to pets. You may think that keeping your pets out of the bedroom and off the couch is a good solution, but unfortunately, it's no more than the absolute minimum, says Dr. Greenwald. Due to airflow through the home and the miniscule size of dander, closed doors aren't nearly enough to block the allergens.

2. Should you get rid of pets?

Dr. Greenwald strongly urges anyone with pet allergies to get rid of their animals entirely, especially if it's the kids who are affected. "If the child is clearly allergic to animals and you have animals in the home," he says, "you're basically perpetuating the child's illnesses." He adds that once you remove the pet, it will take several months for the dander to dissipate.

One way to remove allergens quickly is to remove carpeting and replace it with wood flooring. People suffering from allergies are sensitive to everything around them, and if the allergen is in the home, then their tissue is chronically inflamed, Dr. Greenwald says -- and will ultimately heal with scar tissue, with negative long-term effects.

3. Are there hypoallergenic breeds?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the severity of some people's allergies varies based on the breed of the dog they are exposed to. However, Dr. Greenwald says this is a myth: "I think people are fooling themselves," he says, adding that "it is true that so-called hypoallergenic dogs perhaps shed a little bit less, but we've clearly seen allergies to these dogs as well."

4. Can you cure pet allergies?

While it's relatively easy to control the home environment, given enough time and energy, it's far more difficult to control what you and your children are exposed to in the outside world. Dr. Greenwald notes that people carry allergens from their homes to their workplaces and schools, and that can be enough to trigger a reaction in a sensitive individual. So what's the solution?

5. Does immunotherapy work?

One option that shows promise is immunotherapy. It's a desensitization process where the patient is exposed to doses of the allergen regularly to reduce the severity of, or completely eliminate allergic reactions. It usually takes about three years. "It is effective," Dr. Greenwald says, noting that in one study, "by treating allergies they actually prevented the evolution to asthma in a significant proportion of the kids studied."

6. Should you get tested?

The human immune system is still a mystery. Researchers are still unsure why our immune systems so often develop sensitivities to pollen, pets and common foods like peanuts or soy. But that doesn't mean you should just put up with your allergies, or those of your children. If you suspect that you or any of your family have allergies, Dr. Greenwald recommends visiting an allergist to get tested. Once you find out which allergens are the problem, you can work with the allergist to find solutions -- and end up with better quality of life.

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