You visit a friend who owns a domestic cat that roams around the house. After stroking the cat several times, you start sneezing. Is that an allergic reaction? Or is your body just sensitive to cats? Wait a minute… Is there a difference between being allergic and sensitive?
Urban Health gets an insight on animal allergies from Dr Amir Hamzah Dato’ Abdul Latiff, Consultant Paediatrician and Clinical Immunologist of Pantai Medical Centre, Kuala Lumpur and President of the Malaysian Society of Allergy and Immunology:
ALLERGIES: WHAT IS IT?
The cause of allergies that affects up to 30 percent of the world’s population remains a mystery, according to Dr Amir. “An allergy refers to a hypersensitivity reaction of a person’s immune system or where there is a strong suspicion that there is an immunological problem,” he says.
While waiting for conclusive evidence on the cause of allergies in ongoing research, allergy experts now aim at tackling allergenic symptoms. Allergies can significantly decrease a person’s quality of life, hence doctors strive to identify allergens that trigger an allergic reaction in people.
“The allergens that trigger allergies are known as proteins which are present amongst us,” explains Dr Amir. Several factors may trigger an allergic reaction including aero allergens found in the air such as from the environment, dust mites, pollen and mould.
Pet allergens, on the other hand, are usually caused by the animal’s dead skin/dander saliva and urine.
ARE YOU REALLY ALLERGIC TO PETS?
The word ‘allergy’ is often misused or misinterpreted. “Unless a person is diagnosed with an allergy through a blood test or skin prick test, a person should not use the word ‘allergy’ loosely,” warns Dr Amir. “A person who experiences allergy-like symptoms may not necessarily be allergic to animals.”
In other words, a person’s immune system may be intolerant to animals but he or she may not be allergic to it. For instance, a person who is not exposed to animals and is suddenly in contact with an animal may have allergy-like symptoms such as itching or sneezing.
The symptoms of pet allergies are similar with other allergies. They include:
- Itchy or watery eyes
- Sneezing or runny nose
- Itchy skin
- Asthmatic attack
“A person who is allergic to animals will experience these symptoms as long as pet allergens are present within the area,” says Dr Amir.
It is important to get yourself tested if you experience any of the symptoms above. Also, consult a specialist who will conduct a thorough test to discover the type of allergy and source (if any).
“It is best not to jump to conclusions. You could be not allergic to something else and not the pet,” he says. After all, you would not want to send your pet away, only to discover later that it is not the source of your allergy.
If you have a pet allergy or lives with someone with pet allergy, here are some home remedies to try:
- Do not allow the pet on beds or couches.
- Provide your pet a comfortable spot to sleep on, such as a pet bed.
- Wash your hands and change your clothes after being in contact with your pet.
- Wash the curtains often.
- Have minimal furniture and buy those that are easy to wipe and clean such as wooden or glass furniture.
- Vacuum your house often.
Pet allergens can attach to fabric such as carpets, curtains, clothing and couches that may have been exposed to animals.
I CAN’T LET IT GO!
‘How do I solve this?’, ‘Do we really have to part?’, ‘Does this mean I can never see it again?’
The bond between humans and a much-loved animal is a indescribable feeling. Having a loyal companion by your side through thick and thin, rain and shine is a relationship that most pet owners will never exchange with anything.
Thus, it is easy to understand why all hell breaks loose when a pet allergy is diagnosed in the pet owner or within the household. Tears and the fear of parting with the animal is common.
Before taking any drastic actions, it is best to discuss with a specialist to know your options.
It is best to tackle the situation instead of avoiding or running away from it as animals are found at every corner. If you really have a pet allergy, you would need a solution that allows you to be around animals.
If your choice is to relocate your pet, Dr Amir says that it takes up to six to 12 months to make the space pet allergen-free. Hence, this is not an immediate solution as most people think.
Conventional medications such as nasal sprays, inhalers, eye drops, medications and topical creams for skin problems may be recommended for those with mild allergenic symptoms.
Patients with severe pet allergy symptoms may want to try Immunotherapy. Dr Amir describes Immunotherapy as a form of systematic treatment which is to be taken over a period of three to five years, depending on the severity of the condition.
Immunotherapy has been proven to successfully create tolerance towards particular allergens, shifting the balance from allergic to non-allergic. This treatment is favoured for its long-term effect and effectiveness. Unlike conventional medications that only provide temporary relief, Immunotherapy contains proteins from allergens which help to manipulate the body’s immunity to defend itself against allergens.
Above all, speak to a allergy specialist about Immunotherapy before parting with your pet.
PET OR BABY?
Some new parents consider giving their pet away when their baby arrives. However, researchers have discovered that exposing your child to a pet during the early years may help with their immune development.
A 2012 study titled ‘Respiratory Tract Illnesses During the First Year of Life: Effect of Dog and Cat Contact’ led by Dr Eija Bergroth which was published in Pediatrics showed positive results of having a pet in your home. Babies who were brought up with dogs in their homes were less likely to develop ear infections, colds and had lower use of antibiotics.
MYTH OR TRUTH?
ANIMAL ALLERGY IS CAUSED BY ANIMAL FUR
Myth. “People often have this notion that allergies caused by pet allergens are from fur or animal hair. This is not the case,” Dr Amir clarifies. However, flakes of dead skin from animals may be attached to the fur when it is shed.
MY ALLERGY WILL SUBSIDE
Myth. Sometimes patients may think that their allergy will subside without undergoing any treatment. In most cases, the allergy just shifts, such as from skin symptoms to respiratory symptoms.
A CHILD IS AT A HIGHER CHANCE OF ALLERGY
Myth. As a child grows, the immune system develops and may be sensitive to allergens. However, a person who is not exposed may suffer allergy symptoms in later life.