As printed in the Wall Street Journal - By Heidi Mitchell, Nov. 19, 2013
Pet Allergies No Deterrent for Determined Owners
Many endure wheezing, hives and more for the sake of puppy love
When Jennifer Richter learned that her 2-year-old daughter was allergic to Jack, the family cat, there was only one option. Her daughter got a prescription for daily doses of eye drops and the allergy medicine Zyrtec.
Pets for Allergic People
“No way I was getting rid of that cat,” says Ms. Richter, of Colorado Springs, Colo.
When a fish is just not enough…an industry of breeders, veterinarians and pet stores has cropped up to help allergic people bent on becoming one of the two-thirds of American households that include a cat or dog.
Organizations like the American Kennel Club prominently identify breeds such as poodle, bichon frise and schnauzer that are easier than others for people with allergies to tolerate. Some breeders mail, often for a fee, fur samples to test for possible reactions. Breeders advise owners on how to set up separate “transition” rooms for a new pet and to name godparents to take over if a pet proves too allergy-inducing.
The American Kennel Club gets calls every day from people who want to buy a dog, even though they have an allergy, a spokeswoman says. Such requests spike, breeders say, when low-allergen pets are in the news—as they were this August when the first family adopted its second Portuguese water dog, a breed that doesn’t aggravate Malia Obama’s allergies.
Ms. Richter was highly allergic, but says she had her heart set on a cuddly, playful pet. After doing some research, she and her husband brought home Jack, a wavy-haired feline breed called Devon rex, which she did fine with—no allergy pills necessary.
A few years later, though, Ms. Richter says, the couple learned that their second child was allergic to a raft of things, including cats. The daily prescription eye drops and Zyrtec they gave to Cameron, now 8, helped alleviate the red eyes, runny nose and rashes she would get from Rocket and Jetson, which the family adopted in 2011 after Jack died.
“Cameron plays with the cats and kisses them,” says Ms. Richter. “We couldn’t imagine not having our Devons.”
One-quarter of Americans are sensitive to cats, and 10% react adversely to dogs, says the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Allergists say that most animals emit seven to eight specific allergens found not just in their fur, but in saliva, dander and urine.
Allergic reactions to pets range from wheezing and sneezing, stuffy noses and itchy eyes to rashes and swelling. More serious cases can trigger breathing difficulties and full-on asthma attacks that require a trip to an emergency room.
Allergy shots, or immunotherapy, have been shown to eradicate pet allergies entirely in as much as 80% of patients who take the full course, says allergist and immunologist James Sublett, president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. They are typically taken weekly at first, then monthly over the course of three or so years.
Some people may seem to acclimate to pets. After prolonged exposure, allergy sufferers may build up a tolerance akin to those who acclimate to chronic pain, doctors say.
But even built-up tolerance can subside with prolonged distance. “There are stories of children going away to college and having bad reactions to their pets when they come home,” says Dr. Sublett, who practices in Louisville, Ky.
Experts say there is no such thing as a truly allergen-free cat or dog, though many claims have been made about bald-looking sphynx cats, curly-coated terriers and other breeds. “While no dog is 100% hypoallergenic, there are some breeds that people with allergies may do better with,” says Lisa Peterson, a spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club. What distinguishes these dogs, she says, is that they have a single coat of hair that grows much like human hair; it has to be trimmed but it won’t shed, leaving allergen-laden dander behind.
Some hopeful owners turn to hybridized designer dogs such as labradoodles, since poodles are among the breeds known to be allergy-friendly. But experts say it is impossible to predict how much of the animal’s coat comes from which side of the breed family.
The way to road-test allergies, they say, is to spend time with the creature. “Even if you have an animal in your house, it may take several weeks before you develop problems,” Dr. Sublett says.
At ForestWind Siberians in Buffalo, N.Y., people wanting to buy a Siberian cat must fill out a six-page questionnaire about their allergies, says co-owner Kate Stryker. It asks for details on everything from what type of heating/cooling system they have to the timing and severity of their symptoms. She also requires prospective owners to identify a nonallergic “safe home,” a sort of godparent program in case they decide they can no longer keep the pet due to allergies.
All clients must agree to create a transition room where the animal can spend its first few weeks, while not spreading its dander and saliva broadly around the home. Ms. Stryker counsels prospective buyers on the benefits of in-duct air filters vs. HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) systems and which type of vacuum is ideal. In nine years, she says, she has only had three cats returned due to allergies.
Ms. Stryker, like many breeders, sends fur samples so prospective buyers can gauge their reaction. She charges $25, applicable toward the adoption. (ForestWind Siberians go for about $1,500.)
Some doctors, though, say that living with a handful of fur for a few days provides an inadequate stress test because two-thirds of allergy sufferers experience long-term chronic effects from pets like worsening asthma—not just instant itchy eyes and wheezing.
Karen Dore, of Rye, N.Y., spent about eight months looking for a dog to suit her allergic family. Both she and her eldest son Alex, 11, take allergy shots for seasonal allergies and her husband Charlie is allergic to dogs. The Dores made weekend outings to pet shops, borrowed dogs from friends for the night and spoke to breeders of different types.
Nearly two years ago, they finally bought a peagle, a mix between a Pekingese and a beagle from a local pet store. The mix isn’t touted as particularly hypoallergenic, but they had spent time with a friend’s dog of the same breed without bad reactions.
Ms. Dore instituted some rules to help with their allergies: no other dogs allowed in the home, no dog upstairs and never on the sofa. “That lasted about two weeks,” jokes her husband, Charlie, who owns an executive search firm. Ms. Dore cleans daily to minimize reservoirs of dander and saliva.
Mr. Dore took over-the-counter allergy pills for the first few months after Devon Strawberry moved in, to prevent hives. He no longer needs the pills, but he washes his hands religiously, especially after being licked, to keep his wrists from breaking out in itchy welts, which can still happen.
“I suffered in silence,” he says. “But now my body’s used to Devon, and I’d never get rid of her.”
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