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Pet Allergies: Making It Work

With a few changes you can keep your companion animal -- and manage your pet allergies, too.
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WebMD Pet Health Feature

Do pet allergies have you wheezing and sneezing -- again? Well, there are over 132 million good reasons for that.

That's the number of cats and dogs living in U.S. homes as of 2002, says the American Veterinary Medical Association. And while these four-legged friends are by far the most common companion animals in America, they aren't the only creatures behind the exasperating symptoms of pet allergies.

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The Cause of Pet Allergies: Protein

You'll find pet dander on just about every warm and fuzzy critter we bring in to our homes: from cats and dogs, to birds, hamsters, and ferrets. And just about anything with dander has the potential to bring susceptible people down with a suite of allergy symptoms, says allergist Asriani Chiu, MD.

But it's not a pet's hair, or even the flaky, dandruff-like dander itself, that causes allergies. Instead "it's a specific protein in the dander that people are allergic to," says Chiu, associate professor of pediatrics and medicine (allergy/immunology) at the Medical College of Wisconsin. "With any allergy, from hay fever to peanut allergies, it's always a protein in the substance that you're reacting to."

Pet allergy-producing proteins -- called allergens -- are also found in your pet's urine and saliva. Add to this the fact that these proteins are tiny, easily airborne, and ubiquitous, and it explains why some people can develop pet allergy symptoms simply by walking into an empty room.

What are the most common symptoms of pet allergies? "I get a stuffy nose and runny eyes, very much like seasonal allergies," says Anthony Herrig, an Oregon web developer with cat allergies. Other symptoms can range from mild -- itchy throat, nasal congestion, and sneezing -- to a more severe, asthma-like response, including coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

Why Pet Allergies Hit You

Usually, not everyone in a family or household is allergic to pets.  Just as you have your mom's smile or dad's laugh, you may have inherited your family's genetic predisposition to allergies. Add to this a higher risk of developing allergies to pets if you have other allergies or asthma, and it's clear why you may be alone in your congestion. What's not clear just yet, says Chiu, is why one person can have mild symptoms, while another is laid low with an acute, asthma-like response.

Fortunately, there's a lot you can do to manage pet allergies -- no matter how they affect you. But before you try the following tips, it's a good idea to make sure you really are allergic to dander. If you're not positive you are allergic to dogs, cats, or other pets, visit an allergist, who can help identify which specific allergen is triggering your symptoms.

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