According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI), nearly half of all households in the U.S. include at least one dog or cat.
However, the ACAAI has also found that many pet owners -- 10 million, to be exact -- are actually allergic to the animals they own and love. Some of allergy-prone animal lovers address the issue by opting for so-called hypoallergenic pets, or breeds that tend to shed less, even though no cat or dog breed is truly 100 percent hypoallergenic. Others try to minimize reactions through grooming. Though it won't completely eliminate pet allergy problems, this approach can prove to be helpful, says Dr. Karen Halligan, director of veterinary services at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Los Angeles (spcaLA). The key is in knowing what you're up against and how proper grooming techniques can help.
Root of the Problem
First, it's important to understand what causes pet allergy symptoms. Halligan, who is also the author of "What Every Pet Owner Should Know: Prescriptions for Happy, Healthy Cats and Dogs," puts it this way: "People who are allergic are reacting to proteins that are produced by the pet's skin or saliva, which are also found in the hair, hair root, mucous, urine and dander of both cats and dogs."
The protein acts as an allergen -- a substance that causes your immune system to produce antibodies -- to allergy-prone people. These allergens become airborne during the animal's natural shedding process, and end up everywhere: on carpet, drapes, blinds, furniture -- even on clothes. For someone who has pet allergies, coming into contact with these allergen-dusted items can trigger everything from sneezing, watery eyes and rashes to difficulty breathing and, in severe cases, an asthma attack.
The goal of grooming is to keep your pet from shedding as much, so that the allergens don't make their way onto all of your belongings. "With regular brushing and bathing, you decrease the amount of dander/hair present, which will in turn lessen allergic reactions to these highly antigenic proteins," Halligan says.
Brushing (and Washing and Wiping) Your Cares Away
The specific grooming practices you should follow may depend on the type of pet you have, since some breeds are more high maintenance than others. In general, though, a good rule of thumb is to implement a weekly routine that starts with brushing. This will not only benefit the people in your household who have allergies, it will help the animal as well.
"The skin is the largest organ on a dog or cat's body, so it's important to keep it clean and healthy," Halligan says. "Brushing your pets regularly helps spread their natural oils in the skin, gets rid of dirt, loose dead hair, and dander, and it prevents matting, which can lead to skin infections. Plus, it makes them feel good." There are a number of different brushing tools on the market; some made specifically to handle coarse or fine hair. Ask your veterinarian for a recommendation on which one would work best for your pet.
Weekly grooming should also include bathing your pet or even just wiping him down with wet paper towels. There are some bathing products, such as anti-dander pet shampoos, which claim to help fight pet allergens, but the effectiveness of these options is still in question. However, even if you don't use a specialty product on your pet, the washing process itself can be helpful.
One final note: While regular grooming can provide some relief for people who have animal allergies, it's best to leave the actual task to someone who is allergy-free, whether that's another person in your household or a professional. The grooming process will kick up the very same allergens you're trying to avoid, so if you have pet allergies, keep yourself -- and your eyes, nose and lungs -- out of harm's way by surrendering brushing and bathing duties to someone else. Then just sit back and enjoy the results: some sneeze-free time in the company of your favorite pet.