Can kids with allergies still have pets?

Some breeds may cause less irritation

Published On: Oct 13 2011 04:02:31 PM EDT   Updated On: Feb 19 2009 12:48:00 PM EST
Girl with dog outside

Canines and homo sapiens have been cohabitating for about 13,000 years, but perhaps no time in that history have the sniffles and sneezes the relationship can incur been so much in the news.

President Barack Obama's daughter, Malia, is allergic to dogs. The president promised a dog to his daughters if he won the White House, and the first family's hunt has been widely documented.

There's a decent chance someone in your family also suffers from pet allergies.

Millions Suffer

"Allergies to pets with fur or feathers are common, especially among people who have other allergies or asthma. From 15 percent to 30 percent of people with allergies have allergic reactions to cats and dogs," according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. "The total pet population is more than 100 million, or about four pets for every 10 people."

You have to be exposed to develop the allergy, said Dr. Russell Hopp, a pediatric allergist at Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha, Neb. Hopp said cat allergies are about twice as prevalent as dog allergies.

"Each animal has a major allergen found in the dander, but the major allergen can also be in saliva, urine and hair, and the allergen is very airborne and tends to hang in the air a long time," Hopp said.

So even if you don't bring home a pet, a sufferer may be irritated in a home previously inhabited by animals.

Think Before You Adopt

But what if you know your child is allergic but really wants a pet anyway?

"It's foolhardy or stupid," said Hopp, who advocates avoidance for the 10 percent of children who are very allergic. "If children have dramatic problems with casual or intermittent exposure, that's a red flag. Don't introduce that pet into your environment. The child's personal history should be the guide to making a decision to whether a pet should be added to the house."

But children who have low-level symptoms will probably be OK with a pet, others say.

"My experience is that many allergies become less severe the longer they live with their pet," said veterinarian Dr. Anna Worth, president of the American Animal Hospital Association. "Having a pet as a member of your family is well worth a few sniffles."

Smart Shopping For Pets

So, like the first family, start by shopping for less-irritating pets. Hopp said poodles, miniature schnauzers, Maltesees, Italian greyhounds and Chihuahuas are reported to have less dander-producing potential. Worth said that, for cats, Cornish Rex are popular.

"Boy cats are worse than girl cats, neutered cats are better than non-fixed regardless of gender, kittens tend to have less allergen compared to adults," Hopp said. "It is roughly the same thing with dogs. Some cats make lots of dander and some don't make much, so each cat is its own experience."

Hopp suggests that any family narrowing down the hunt for a less-irritating pet should ask a shelter or seller for a trial run. Have the allergic child spend some time with the particular animal, either before the family takes the pet home or for a week's testing at the house.

Limit Exposure To Dander

Once the animal is home to stay, families can reduce irritation by bathing the pet regularly, doing thorough regular cleaning in the house -- especially carpets and furniture, since soft surfaces are most likely to hold onto the dander -- and keeping animals out of the allergic child's bedroom. Hopp recommends an air purifier in that bedroom.

Worth and AAHA colleague veterinarian Dr. Kate Knutson said bathing and good ventilation are the fundamentals. Keeping cats away from the face and washing hands after handling can also help.

As for the Obamas, the president told CNN's Anderson Cooper in February that the first family hasn't decided what type of dog to get, but will wait until spring. Obama said the family was "still experimenting" to find the right breed.