Animals have been companions to humans for millennia. However, the place they occupy among us has changed considerably through the years. In the last century, for example, they have gone from being distant protectors who live in the backyard to family members who spend their lives under our roof and sometimes even sleep in our beds.
These changes in our relationship, especially the physical proximity to our pets, are causing more people to have allergy symptoms.
It turns out that allergies to dogs and cats affect 10% to 20% of the population worldwide and 12% of the U.S. population.
They are a response of the immune system, (over)reacting to normally harmless substances that, for some people, trigger symptoms like:
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Runny nose
- Scratchy throat
However, this does not mean an allergic person will suffer from them all. It varies from person to person, depending on the type of allergies they have and what they are allergic to.
For example, pet-related allergens can also trigger skin reactions, such as itchy, reddening and swollen skin patches (called hives) or eczema, as well as asthma symptoms like wheezing, difficulty breathing or chest tightness.
I get it, though: despite being sensitive to pet allergies, you may want to indulge in the joys of sharing your life with a furry friend. Enter hypoallergenic pets.
However, are these the real thing? Well, it’s complicated. So, to answer this question, we’ll need to understand allergens better, review some of the most common misconceptions surrounding pet allergies and debunk a few myths.
The biggest myths and misconceptions about pet allergies
Let’s look at the facts behind the myths:
Myth #1: Pet allergies are triggered by shed fur and hair
There is some truth to the fact that pet hair can collect outdoor allergens like pollen, mold and other debris. This could potentially lead to the fur causing allergy symptoms.
But the reality is that actual pet allergies have nothing to do with fur and hair.
Pet allergies are triggered by proteins found in pet dander (dead skin cells), saliva and urine. These proteins are very sticky and can cling to walls, carpets, furniture, bedding and clothes. Pet dander can linger in a home for up to six months, worsening allergy symptoms.
Myth #2: Only mammal pets trigger allergies
Most people are familiar with allergies to furry pets —which makes a lot of sense, as dogs and cats are Americans’ most common choices for pets.
Other mammals such as rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats and mice are also part of the hairy group whose proteins can trigger allergies. Less known, probably, is the fact that birds produce dander, too.
Bird dander is a combination of beta-keratine particles (the protein feathers are made of), bird dust and dirt particles that are released into the air each time a bird grooms itself, ruffles its feathers or flaps its wings. Plus, some parrots and other bird species are known as “Powder Down Birds” because they produce a whitish powder to protect and waterproof some of their feathers. Bird dust can also wreak havoc on your allergies.
Myth #3: If you are allergic to a specific pet, you’ll be allergic to them all
Each animal species produces different proteins —thus, allergens vary from one to another.
For example, dog allergens are called Canis familiaris (Can f 1 and Can f 2 are the most common ones), while cats’ are Felis domesticus (being Fel d 1 and Fel d 4 the most prevalent ones).
One person could be allergic to cats (or Fel d 1) but not dogs (Can f 1).
What’s more, each particular pet produces different amounts of allergens. As a result, someone could be allergic to one cat and not another, depending on their sensitivity to the Felis domesticus allergens.
Myth #4: Ongoing exposure to pets can help with pet allergies
This is a dangerous myth, as being constantly exposed to allergens can put the immune system under serious stress. For allergic people, unsupervised exposure can worsen symptoms and make them chronic.
On the other hand, some studies have found that early childhood exposure (preferably before a child’s first year) to animals, including cats and dogs, may lower the risk of developing allergies later in life. Pets introduce certain microbes into the home environment that boost children’s immune system as it develops.
However, for those with an already established pet allergy, exposure with no backing treatment or guidance from an allergist won’t desensitize them. On the contrary, keeping a pet at home shouldn’t be something to take lightly.
Myth #5: There are hypoallergenic breeds of dogs and cats
This is simply not true.
While the misconception about pet fur triggering allergies made people believe that shorthaired breeds that shed less were hypoallergenic, all cats and dogs produce allergens to some extent.
Besides, research shows no direct link between low-shedding dogs and low levels of Can f 1 (dogs’ most prevalent allergens) present in their homes. On the contrary, even some alleged hypoallergenic dogs, such as Poodles, show higher concentrations of Can f 1 than other non-hypoallergenic breeds.
And yet, despite many scientific findings, some dog and cat breeds are still marketed as hypoallergenic:
There are those who claim that hypoallergenic breeds produce lower levels of allergy-triggering proteins. But protein levels vary from one animal to another more than among breeds, so there’s no guarantee that a specific breed will prove to be universally allergy-safe.
Buying a purebred dog or cat can be pricey, and many pet friends await adoption in shelters. If you want to share your life with a dog or a cat, your best option is to consult an allergy specialist, learn as much as possible about your specific triggers and then decide which pet would suit your needs best.
The most allergy-friendly pets
If you got to this point in my article, you will know that there isn’t just one perfect pet for people with allergies.
That being said, there are some alternatives to cats and dogs that could fit the bill in allergic households:
1. Reptiles and amphibians (herptiles)
These exotic pets are becoming more and more common, being chosen by 6.0 million U.S. homes. Popular reptile pets are lizards, including bearded dragons, geckos and chameleons, while favored amphibians are axolotls (they actually look like a Pokémon), salamanders and frogs.
While reptiles have dry and scaly skin and amphibians have smooth, slimy skin, neither of them produces the proteins that trigger pet allergies.
However, they have very specific environmental and dietary needs and require proper husbandry. Reptiles can also carry salmonella in their digestive tract, which can be contracted by people touching them or their environment. Plus, they need specialized veterinary care.
Fish are diverse and colorful pets that don’t produce the animal proteins furry ones do. In addition to this, fishkeeping can unlock the wonderful universe of aquarium hobbies; people can get really creative at this.
Keeping fish as a pet requires a fair amount of research upfront because there is a learning curve where mistakes can be made. But after understanding fish needs and routines, maintenance becomes easier. Plus, according to this study, watching your fish swim across the aquarium can reduce stress levels and anxiety.
3. Small mammals and rodents
More exotic mammals could be an option, depending on the proteins that trigger your allergies.
For example, the most prevalent allergens found in rabbits (Ory c 3) and guinea pigs (Cav p 1) have been proven to differ from those produced by dogs and cats. So, finding out what exactly someone is allergic to is a good starting point for finding the right furry pet.
Five things you should do before you bring a pet home
Avoiding pets is not always possible, and not everybody is ready to make that choice.
The good news is there are some things that can make life much easier when it comes to preparing your home to receive a pet. Here are five suggestions to design a home environment that helps reduce allergic reactions to a minimum.
1. Visit an allergy expert
A lot of people with allergies decide to live with their pets, and they manage. Discuss your specific needs and options with an allergist. They will help identify the things you are allergic to and advise on the best approach. Immunotherapy (allergy shots) is a widely used treatment; medications like antihistamines can help alleviate symptoms. However, do not self-medicate. Always consult with the expert.
2. Create pet-free spaces in your home
Designate some areas where the new furry member of the family won’t be allowed to enter. Ideally, the allergy sufferers’ bedroom, but pet-free rooms could also include the home-office room, playroom or the areas where allergic ones spend most of their time. This will provide an allergen-free refuge for them and, in the case of their room, a smooth night’s sleep.
3. Invest in a HEPA filter air purifier
A true HEPA filter can remove over 99% of airborne particles, including pet dander and any other allergens. It will help a lot to reduce symptoms. A good idea is to place one in every room, but getting at least one for the designated pet-free room will make a huge difference.
If you are considering getting one but don’t have a clue as to where to start, check out our selection of air purifiers for allergies.
4. Consider replacing carpets with hard surface flooring
Carpets (and rugs) accumulate a lot of dust, debris and, of course, pet dander. Even if you vacuum regularly, pet allergens are sticky stuff and easily cling to carpet fibers and padding. Hard surface floors, on the other hand, are much more straightforward to clean and keep allergen-free.
5. Declutter your home
Try to reduce soft goods and upholstery around the house to a minimum —more so if you cannot replace carpet floors. All fabrics tend to collect pet allergens; dusting, vacuuming or moving around the house can stir them back into the air.
If you want to know more about how to keep your home dander-free, check out this guide.
Common questions about pet allergies
No matter how viral the concept of hypoallergenic pets is or may become, no furry pet is really allergy-proof.
There are many – and varied – lists of supposed hypoallergenic dogs and cats on the internet. If you were to read them all, you would notice that the advice provided by each list is not consistent. I would argue that these differences should make you question the reliability of the idea of hypoallergenic pets.
Additionally, the amount of allergens each pet produces varies, no matter what breed they are. And people’s sensitivity to animal proteins varies as well. That’s why one person could find that their “hypoallergenic” dog or cat doesn’t trigger any symptoms, while a different person could have an allergic reaction to the same breed.
Yes, you can! And vice versa as well. Each species produces a distinct protein or set of proteins that trigger allergy symptoms. A person can be allergic to one or some and not necessarily to all of them.
Sadly, no, they are not. Just like with dogs and cats, rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters, allergens are specific to their species —although hamster allergens vary greatly among subspecies, too.
Besides, these small mammals have a diet high on hay, which is also a common allergy trigger among sensitive people.
Hedgehogs are known for producing very little dander and not triggering the most common pet allergies in humans. However, continuing with the trend, some people may show allergic reactions to these little guys.
Something else to consider about these spiky mammals is that it’s not uncommon to find a fungus called Trichophyton erinacei on their quills. The hedgehog itself could show no signs of fungal infection but still transmit it to people through handling or its bedding, leading to skin infections.
Another downside of hedgehogs is that they can carry Salmonella in their dropping. In fact, the CDC reported Salmonella outbreaks related to hedgehogs in 2020 and 2019.
You’ll probably already suspect an allergic reaction to your pet if any of these symptoms arise when they are around:
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Scratchy throat
- Skin rashes or hives
- Worsen asthma symptoms
However, getting tested and consulting an allergist is always advisable, just to be sure. It might surprise you to discover you are not allergic to your dear pet after all but rather reacting to other allergens they may carry in their fur (such as pollen) from outside.
Many kids with asthma are also allergic to animals. Pet allergens can trigger asthma flare-ups and more severe asthma symptoms, in which case having a pet at home would not be advisable. If your kids have asthma, consult with their pediatrician before deciding on bringing a pet home.
After debunking some myths and right-doing popular misconceptions about pet allergies, it’s safe to say there’s no such thing as hypoallergenic pets. However, not all hope is lost. Knowing your allergies and understanding what triggers them could help you choose a suitable animal companion to live with.
Just one last tip: if you are serious about adopting a pet, a good way to test your sensitization to that specific animal is to spend some time with them before making the big decision. See how your body reacts to them. You may be pleasantly surprised!
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