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Written By:  Sakina N. Bharani, M.D.




A person with a genetic allergic background has a potential to develop allergies to virtually all animal species.  Allergic reactions to animal dander, such as cats, dogs, and horses are common.  Frequently, the allergic symptoms become obvious to the patient even though some resist recognizing the possibility of a reaction to their favorite pets.  Sometimes the allergic reaction is an inconvenience, but in other cases it may be incapacitating.  Severe allergy, to cats in particular, may be socially restrictive, since these patients can experience allergy symptoms by simply being in households without even direct contact with the pet.  This is a result of the house and furnishings being covered with the animal dander and saliva.



            Thirty percent of patients who have other allergy-related illnesses experience allergic symptoms to cat.  The major allergens (the proteins that cause allergy symptoms) are present in cat pelt, dander, saliva, and hair.  The cat pelt and saliva appear to be the major source of allergens compared to hair.  Generally, cat allergy is more severe than dog allergy, and all of the species of cats can be aggravating to varying degrees.



            The epidermal scales, known as the dander of the dog, contain much more allergen than the hair.  This could explain allergy symptoms even with the short-haired dogs, such as the poodles.  Even the urine and saliva of the dogs have been shown to contain allergens.  There can be a variation in the allergic reactions to different breeds of dogs, but over time an individual can develop cross-reactivity between the various species.

            Often, the patients may not complain of symptoms on exposure to their pets because of their constant exposure to them.  A trial period of removal of the pet from the household (after thorough cleaning) may be necessary before the sensitivity can be properly assessed.  Sometimes it is necessary for the patient to be away from the environment for a period of at least two weeks.



Allergy to horses is now less of a problem, not only because there are fewer of these animals in our cities, but also because horse hair is less frequently used in furniture, mattress padding and felts.  Significant exposure continues for agricultural workers, race track and stable attendants, gardeners exposed to horse manure, and many who ride horses as their hobby.



            Farmers and ranchers may become sensitized to domestic animals such as cattle, hogs, sheep and goats.  There is increased frequency of allergic reactions in laboratory workers, common offenders being rats, rabbits, mice, guinea pigs, and monkeys.  Domestic household pets such as hamsters, gerbils and guinea pigs may contribute to the symptoms.

            Many garments are made from animal pelts including various furs, cashmere, mohair, alpaca, vicuna and camel hair, but these processed materials rarely cause allergic reactions.



            Allergic reactions from the feathers have been well known for a long time.  It has been shown that the allergenic substances are found in aged feathers.  The common sources of exposure are pillows, comforters, featherbed, and jackets made of chicken, goose, and duck feathers.  Down is another word for mixed feathers.  It is now known that dust mite concentrations are high in down-filled products, and that this could also lead to allergic symptoms.



            The allergic reactions to animal dander affect the respiratory system causing asthma, rhinitis, and conjunctivitis.

            Nasal congestion with sneezing, watery, nasal discharge, and itchy, watery, red eyes are the most common symptoms on exposure to the animal dander.  Often, these symptoms can develop into asthma, particularly when exposed to cats.  Less commonly, the lick, bite, or scratch of a cat, dog, or exposure to urine of mice or rats (in the laboratory) may produce hives or a rash.





            Complete avoidance is still the best method of treatment.  However, a person’s livelihood may require animal exposure, as in the case of veterinarians and laboratory workers.  Even after eliminating the pet from the household, a thorough cleaning may be necessary to eliminate allergic substances from the carpeting, furniture, closets and other household items. Washing the pet at least once a week has been shown to decrease dander levels. If a person is sensitive to laboratory animals with which he must work, certain environmental precautions may decrease his exposure.  Mask, gloves, and laboratory coat must be worn while working with an animal.  A fan should be placed behind the person so that the animal dander is blown away.  Wetting the animal’s fur may also help to decrease the spread of the dander.



            Symptomatic relief can be achieved with the use of antihistamine/decongestants, bronchodilators, as well as, nasal sprays containing steroids and cromolyn sodium.



            Immunotherapy usually is not recommended for the treatment of animal dander sensitivity except under unusual circumstances when exposure is unavoidable, as in the case of the veterinarian.


PLEASE NOTE: The information in this “News and Notes” represents general guidance in the field of Allergy.

Nothing herein stated shall be construed as a specific or implied treatment for an ailment.





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Last modified: 03/01/16