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Ask A Vet: Which Pets Are Truly Hypoallergenic? Hint: None

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I know what it is like to be allergic to the things you love the most. If you have read my book, Tennessee Tails: Pets and Their People, you will know that several years into my career I was diagnosed with animal allergies. I tested VERY positive for dog, cat and horse. My favorite animals and all of my patients are among them. Not only my patients, but my passion makes me sick! I cannot live happily without animals, so the question is: “Can I live healthy with them? “

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I have never known a time when I did not love them and from a financial survival aspect, I need to work with them too.

I have been in the care for a long time of Michael C. Hollie, MD, FAAAAI, FACAAI a Board Certified Allergist here in Chattanooga. He originally diagnosed me (to my astonishment) with animal allergies and has been my partner in combating them all this time. I will never forget trying to choke back the tears when he explained my allergies to me. I was in denial and I am always grasping at straws to find a pet that I can snuggle and baby that won’t make me sick.

Dr. Hollie understands my animal passion, but he also understands my clinical allergy, so he has been a fabulous resource for me. When I was ready to adopt my next dog, I asked him about “hypoallergenic dogs.” I looked on the internet for hypoallergenic breeds and found tons of hopeful information along those lines. I wanted him to tell me of a dog or cat that I could own safely and healthfully. I showed him pictures of cats with no hair and lists of dog breeds that are supposedly hypoallergenic. He shook his head sadly and explained, “People often confuse the terms ‘hypoallergenic’ and ‘non-allergenic’ when referring to a pet’s ability to provoke allergy symptoms. Hypoallergenic refers to low allergy and non-allergenic refers to no allergy. With that said, non-allergenic cats and dogs do not exist.” This was not news that I wanted to hear.

He went on to explain that the allergens (proteins that cause allergic symptoms) are found in the animal’s dander (dead skin cells), saliva and urine. So unless we can find an animal with no skin, saliva or urine, we are going to have allergens no matter what the breed. The length of a cat’s hair, its sex or whether they live indoors or outdoors is not associated with cat allergen levels. In regards to dogs, some breeds (poodles, Portuguese water dogs, terriers and others) have been purported to be hypoallergenic, but studies do not support these claims. Even hairless dogs still have allergen.

A study published in 2011 (Dog allergen levels in homes with hypoallergenic compared with non-hypoallergenic dogs, Am J Rhinol Allergy. 2011 Jul-Aug;25(4): 252-256),  showed that dust samples from homes with breeds reported to be hypoallergenic compared to those with other non-hypoallergenic breeds showed no difference in dog allergen levels.

Depending on an individual’s sensitivity, certain breeds may be better than others for that specific person, but there is not a true “non-allergenic” breed. Everyone that loves pets and has allergies wants to believe that there is a silver bullet, but like most things, there is no shortcut.

Don’t get me wrong. I would LOVE to be able to tell you that all you have to do is adopt one breed or another breed and all would be well. You have no idea how great this news would be to me, but in reality, if you are allergic your only hope is to address your allergy with your immune system, not with your choice of pet breeds. Studies do show that frequent bathing can reduce the amount of allergen in pets (Washing the dog reduces dog allergen levels, but the dog needs to be washed twice a week. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 1999 Apr;103(4):581-5.) and there are certainly other ways to reduce your exposure.

Only a Board Certified Allergist can provide you with an accurate diagnosis, recommendations regarding living with a pet, and most importantly, effective treatment that may include desensitization (allergy shots) to your dog and /or cat.

Don’t give in to the internet hype and have unrealistic expectations from a certain type or breed of animal. Pick an animal that you love and then pick an allergist that you love too and together you can find a way to live happy and healthy.

Written by Dr. Kathryn Primm
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