We’re a nation of animal lovers, but is there anything we can do when itches and sneezes come between us and our pets?
Around 48 per cent of households (that’s about 13 million) in the UK own at least one pet. Nearly half of all homes, from flats to mansions, make space for an animal. It’s a clear measure of how much we love our pets. And we benefit from having them.
“There’s quite a lot of evidence that having an animal can help reduce stress and depression,” says Maureen Jenkins, Director of Clinical Services at Allergy UK. “It can also help reduce blood pressure, and is good for you in other ways – you’re more likely to take more exercise, for instance, particularly if you have a dog.”
Which pets are worst for allergies?
“The most common pet allergen in this country is the cat,” says Maureen Jenkins. “Cat allergen is far more allergenic than that of any other animal. This is because the molecule is very sticky and adheres to every surface, including walls.” Even having thoroughly cleaned a home, two to three years after the cat has left you can still find the allergen.
“The allergen is in cats’ and dogs’ saliva, urine and faeces,” says Maureen Jenkins. “In fact, all animals have allergen in their bodily fluids. Animals clean themselves by licking their skin and fur or feathers, which is coated with allergen. This is shed all the time and can get everywhere, so it can be difficult to avoid.”
All creatures great and small
These aren’t the only animals that can cause an allergic reaction. Horses are often a problem – or seem to be. It may be the mould spores in their bedding or the dust in the yard that’s causing a reaction.
Small animals such as mice, hamsters, gerbils, and especially birds, can also cause allergy problems. Their allergen gets into their bedding too, so it’s best if someone who isn’t allergic to them cleans them out.
“I don’t think there’s any animal that you can’t be allergic to,” says Maureen Jenkins. “There are some animals that are bred because they’re believed to be less allergic, especially poodle-type dogs, with their short, curly hair. Their coats do shed less, but they still have allergens in their saliva.”
Does that mean that having a pet is out of the question?
If you or anyone in your family becomes allergic to a pet, there are steps that you can take. “Keep your pet out of the bedroom and off the beds, furniture and upholstery,” says Maureen Jenkins.
“Try to keep carpets to a minimum. Wooden floors are better, as are blinds, and leather or similar furniture. Anything that you can wipe down is a sensible choice. Remember to wipe your pet down when they’ve been out in the garden or for a walk, especially in the hay-fever season.”
“Being with animals doesn’t mean that you’ll catch diseases from them under normal circumstances,” explains Maureen Jenkins. “Washing your hands as usual is really all that’s needed. Just stroking animals isn’t usually a risk to hygiene, it’s the droppings.”
If you are clearing up animal waste, it’s most important that you wash your hands afterwards, every time. If you are pregnant or have a lowered immune system, take particular care with hand washing.
You should also be careful when children play in the garden or park. Normal dirt – mud etc. − isn’t a problem. However, do keep an eye on whether children are playing near pigeon droppings, or animal urine and faeces. Make sure that they wash their hands really well afterwards, and before putting their hands to their faces, or eating.
Diseases we share
There are some cases when we can catch diseases from pets and other animals. Birds such as budgerigars and parrots can cause respiratory and chest problems in humans. You can catch a disease called psittacosis, for instance, from parrots.
Toxoplasmosis is a disease that you can catch after being infected by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. This is commonly found in animal excrement in soil and on grass. If you are pregnant or have lowered immunity you may need medication, but most people don’t need treatment. If you are concerned that you may have a disease related to your pet, see your GP.
Visit our Allergies Centre for more information on allergies or if you have a specific question, ask one of our experts on hand to help you answer any allergy-related queries that you may have.
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