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What are Animal Allergies: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Definition and Overview

Animal allergies refer to a common health condition that causes allergic reactions to animals, whether to their dander, fur, saliva, or urine. People who have a pet allergy, as this condition is also called, are prone to having breathing difficulties and asthmatic symptoms when exposed to said allergens. Allergic reactions can be minimized with the help of medications and therapies, although the best way to avoid triggering attacks is to limit exposure to animals, especially those most commonly associated with allergies.

Cause of Condition

The symptoms experienced by people allergic to animals are triggered by close or frequent exposure as well as by direct contact with animals, usually those with fur or feathers. The animals most commonly known to cause allergic reactions are dogs, cats, horses, and rodents. Pet dander, which refers to dead skin cells that animals naturally shed, is the most common culprit because these are very small, are airborne and can remain so for a time, and can even stick to clothes and furniture.

However, the body’s reaction to the allergens is actually caused by the immune system, which picks up pet dander as a potential foreign threat. In order to protect the body from bacteria and other threats, the immune system produces antibodies. In a person with a pet allergy, the antibodies mistakenly identify pet dander as a harmful threat, causing the immune system to respond counteractively. The most common reaction is an inflammatory response in the lungs and nasal passageway, causing asthma-like symptoms. If the person’s exposure to the allergen does not reduce or stop despite these symptoms, there is a tendency for the inflammatory response to become chronic, which characterizes asthma.

Most people who have allergies tend to have allergies and asthma in their family medical history, which indicates that hypersensitivity to animal substances may be a hereditary condition.

Pet exposure during childhood is also found to have some impact on how a person’s immune system may react to animal exposure over time. According to some studies, children exposed to animals at an early age, or more specifically the first year of life, tend to have stronger resistance to allergies and asthma.

Key Symptoms

Due to the immune system’s inflammatory response, animal allergies usually cause symptoms similar to an upper respiratory infection. These include:

  • Swollen nasal passageways
  • Runny nose
  • Itchy or irritated nose, causing frequent sneezing
  • Itchy throat or roof of the mouth
  • Nasal congestion
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Inflamed and watery eyes
  • Hives, or raised skin patches or rashes
  • Itchy skin
  • Eczema attack
  • Facial pressure
  • Swollen skin under the eyes

If animal allergies cause an asthma attack, the patient will experience more severe symptoms that affect breathing. These include:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightening of the chest
  • Whistling sound when the person exhales

Since most of these symptoms are similar to what a person experiences during a bout of the common cold, allergic reactions are sometimes mistaken as a minor illness, causing patients to refrain from seeking medical attention. However, the common cold rarely goes beyond a week or two, unless some aggravating factors are involved. Thus, when the above symptoms are experienced for more than a couple of weeks at most, the presence of allergy should be suspected and medical attention should be sought.

Possible complications

If a person is having severe breathing difficulties, he should be given emergency medical care to avoid serious health complications.

When left untreated or when contact or exposure is not stopped, there is a tendency for isolated allergy attacks to develop into chronic asthma. This is why it is important for a person who is showing signs of hypersensitivity to animal allergens to seek treatment or avoid exposure to pets altogether.

Who to See and Types of Treatment Available

A person showing signs of an allergic reaction to pets and animals may consult his or her general physician or family doctor.

Lifestyle changes

The best way to keep animal allergies under control is to limit exposure to the animal that is causing the condition in the first place. This should cause a reduction in the frequency and severity of the patient’s reactions. However, if limiting exposure does not control reactions, it is best to avoid pets altogether.

This, however, does not guarantee that you will not be exposed to allergens, as animal allergens can easily be transported by way of other people’s clothing or objects. Thus, some people, especially those who would like to keep having pets in their home, may seek alternative treatment methods.

Medications and therapies

There are certain medications that can help improve symptoms caused by allergic reactions to animals. These include:

  • Decongestants – Decongestants help bring down the swelling in the nasal passage, relieving nasal congestion and helping a person breathe easily. These are available in oral drugs and nasal sprays. However, decongestant sprays should not be used for three consecutive days as this may worsen the congestion.

  • Corticosteroids – Corticosteroids are effective in reducing inflammation and associated symptoms; these are delivered via nasal sprays or oral drugs, although the former is known to cause less side effects.

Some medications and treatments, on the other hand, work by controlling the root of the symptoms, which is the immune system response. These include:

  • Antihistamines – Known as the anti-allergy drug, antihistamines control the production of a chemical produced by the immune system when it is having an active reaction to an allergen. By doing so, antihistamines can relieve the common symptoms of pet allergies.

  • Cromolyn sodium – Like antihistamines, cromolyn sodium inhibits the production of a certain chemical that triggers allergic reactions. This is also delivered through nasal sprays, but tend to be more effective as a preventative measure used before symptoms occur.

  • Leukotriene modifiers – Often used when a person cannot tolerate antihistamines and corticosteroids, leukotriene modifiers inhibit the mechanism of action of some chemicals released by the immune system. More commonly known as montelukast, these medications are associated with a higher risk of side effects such as headache, fever, or mood changes.

  • Immunotherapy – Immunotherapy refers to a series of injections that try to familiarize the immune system with certain allergens, so that the body will no longer identify these allergens as harmful. This is usually used as a last resort when other medications fail to help. Patients typically get one or two shots per week for three to six months, with each shot containing small doses of animal proteins that trigger animal allergies. The dose is delivered at gradually increasing doses to strengthen the patient’s resistance to said allergen. After the initial treatment period, the patient has to go back once every four weeks for up to five years to receive maintenance shots.
    References:

  • Brown SGA, Kemp SF, Lieberman P. Anaphylaxis. In: Adkinson NF Jr., Bochner BS, Burks AW, et al., eds. Middleton's Allergy Principles and Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2013:chap 77.

  • Wasserman SI. Approach to the person with allergic or immunologic disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 257.