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Are You Allergic to Pet Dander? You Can Still Have Dogs — I Do

My dogs, Grant and Maizy, shed dander like any other dog. Here are the five ways I manage my allergy to it so I'm not a sneezy, itchy mess.

Marybeth Bittel  |  Jul 9th 2015


When your favorite canine companion romps across the room, do your sinuses sound off with an epic series of sneezes? When you relax next to Fido on the couch, do your eyes itch uncontrollably? First of all, take heart — you’re most certainly not alone! I have pet allergies, too, and that hasn’t forced me apart from my wonderful pups. So before you rule out pet ownership altogether — or worse, before you consider finding your existing furry friend a brand-new home — here are the ways I have helped preserve a happy, healthy canine co-habitation arrangement.

My dogs, Grant and Maizy. (All photos courtesy Marybeth Bittel)

In addition to my husband, I currently live with two feisty bundles of mixed-breed canine cuteness named Grant and Maizy. I’ve owned, trained, and fostered dogs (and cats) since I was 13 years old. The only reason I wasn’t allowed to have a pet any earlier is because an allergist told my parents we should “never, ever have animals in the house” due to recurrent allergies and chronic congestion. For me, unfortunately, a major culprit was animal dander, and as the allergist warned us, “The best way to safeguard against dander is to keep all pets off the premises.”

True, perhaps — yet I’d argue that the term “health” refers to a lot more than physical symptoms. I’ve personally found that the positive effects of owning a pet greatly enhance my general sense of well-being. That’s why I’m overjoyed that my family eventually opted to go against the allergist’s advice. It may not be the best decision for everyone, but often pet-related allergies are a manageable problem. When it comes to coping, here’s what has worked for me:

1. Taking a skin allergy test to confirm my dogs were the cause

It looks

A skin allergy test looks much worse than it is — promise.

Pinpointing a pet allergy isn’t always a simple process. Sometimes symptoms are subtle, intermittent, or mild but chronic. And sometimes, your dog isn’t even the main culprit. Asthma, for instance, can be touched off by numerous environmental triggers such as smoke, dust mites, and pollen. Dogs can carry many of these on their fur.

I’m so glad my allergist suggested skin testing as a first step. These relatively painless, intradermal tests simply expose your skin to tiny samples of allergy-triggering elements. For accurate results, you’ll need to go off antihistamines temporarily. If that’s not possible for you — or if your allergic reactions tend to be severe — you can also request a radioallergosorbent (RAST) blood test to check for antibodies. According to Laurie Picha, a nurse and allergy technician at Midwest ENT Consultants, a RAST is helpful when it comes to environmental allergies, but skin tests are somewhat more informative. Your findings may yield concrete data that puts your pet in the clear.

2. Modifying their diet to reduce dander

Dinner is served!

Dinner is served!

Dogs are natural carnivores with digestive systems that are similar to wolves. They don’t process carbs and grains in quite the same way we humans do. In fact, a diet too heavy in carbs — for instance, kibble and nothing else — can often lead to yeast overgrowth. This, in turn, can give pups flaky or itchy skin, which ups the amount of animal dander in your environment. Considering a grain-free or lower-carb diet for your canine can often help. Our dogs love the Wellness brand, but we also use the homemade dog food recipes of Dr. Richard Pitcairn for economical variety.

3. Rinsing allergens down the drain

Grant and Maizy much prefer a wipe-down to a bath.

Grant and Maizy much prefer a wipe-down to a bath.

I learned the hard way that bathing pups too frequently can actually worsen pet allergies because detergents can dry out canine skin and cause pups to scratch like crazy. For me, it’s actually much more effective to use plain, lukewarm water and simply rinse Grant and Maizy on a regular basis. Laurie Picha also recommends pet wipes as another convenient, non-irritating way to reduce excess doggie dander.

4. Adapting our environment to make cleaning easier

Grant and Maizy on our hardwood floors.

Grant and Maizy on our hardwood floors.

I was surprised (and okay, somewhat euphoric) when my allergist told me that constant vacuuming tends to stir up allergens without necessarily removing them. Dander is apparently pretty lightweight, so it tends to float around in the air. Turns out I don’t get to stop vacuuming altogether (rats!), but I’ve found that air purifiers with HEPA filters make a huge difference — especially in rooms where our family spends a lot of time. Other effective tactics we’ve tried:

  • Installing wood or tile floors where practical because carpet traps a TON of dander.
  • Washing clothing/bedding/linens often, preferably in the warmest water they’re designed to withstand.
  • Using washable furniture covers and throws. Some people also swear by plastic mattress covers.
  • Wiping down floors and walls on a bi-weekly basis with mild, unscented soap.
  • Wearing an inexpensive face mask during dust-intensive chores to avoid inhaling allergens.

If your symptoms simply won’t calm down, it’s also smart to keep Rover from roving into the bedroom (where you spend about a third of your life) or onto chairs or couches where you tend to hang out often.

5. Choosing my weapons against pet allergies

If medicine doesn't manage your allergies, consider immunotherapy.

If medicine doesn’t manage your allergies, consider immunotherapy.

Sometimes, a simple daily antihistamine is all it takes to keep pet allergies under control. For more stubborn symptoms, you can weigh the risks and benefits of intranasal corticosteroids like Flonase and Nasacort, which are now available over the counter. Uncontrolled symptoms may require more drastic measures, in which case you can consider doing what I did: Visit an allergist for immunotherapy sessions. These subcutaneous injections strengthen your immunity to animal dander and proteins over time. The tiny needles are virtually painless — and for me, the long-term results have given me the freedom to keep furkids in our family.

If you suffer from pet-related allergies, talk to your doctor about some of the strategies mentioned above. It’s entirely possible you’ll be able to experience puppy love for a lifetime.

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About the author: About the Author: Marybeth Bittel is a freelance writer who lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, her crazy rescue dog Grant, and her level-headed rescue dog Maizy – all of them Heinz 57 mixed breed types. Marybeth identifies as mostly Italian, so she enjoys feeding family, friends and furkids almost as much as Grant and Maizy enjoy eating. She’s also a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. Connect with her on LinkedIn or — to see her latest pet pics (and be careful what you wish for here) — check out her family Instagram feed.