As a pediatric allergist, I ask every family about various exposures inside their home, including pets. It’s amusing to me how many parents have been conditioned (guilted?) into including three little words when they tell me they have a dog “but it’s hypoallergenic.” It’s similar to when I ask parents if anyone smokes cigarettes at home “yes…but always outside.”
I’d like to set the record straight right now. No parent should every feel guilty about having a pet dog. You are all hereby absolved of any future need to state “…but it’s hypoallergenic.” Why? Because it’s a myth. Hypoallergenic dogs are a magical fantasy created by breeders and marketers to…wait for it…sell more dogs.
About two-thirds of homes in the United States have at least one pet, and most of these have dogs. In addition, 10-20% of all children and adults across the world are allergic to dogs. That means there are a LOT of people that live with the very animal that can cause them misery.
Allergy symptoms include itching of the nose and eyes, sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion, cough, and rashes. Symptoms can vary in severity and become quite severe. People with dog allergy can have acute symptoms when they directly touch dogs or visit homes that have dogs. They can also have daily symptoms if they live with a dog.
Dog dander is what causes symptoms of allergy. It’s not the length, style, type, or shedding of fur. Dander comes from saliva, skin cells, and urine. Unless your dog has no mouth, no skin, or doesn’t pee, it will release dander into the air.
The myth of the hypoallergenic dog originated due to a couple of interesting aspects of dog allergy. First, there are different types of allergens, which can vary by dog. Second, many people with dog allergy may only have symptoms when exposed to some breeds, but not others. This can give the illusion that a dog is ‘hypoallergenic’. Unfortunately, the same dog that is well tolerated by one person with allergies can cause misery for another.
Allergy testing can tell if someone produces allergy antibody towards dog dander, but we cannot test for different breeds. When families ask about getting a new dog, I recommend spending time with the exact breed they are thinking about before bringing inside the home. No symptoms after repeated direct exposure? It may go well. Severe itching, sneezing, rashes after exposure? Symptoms may get worse if that dog is brought inside the home.
Children with dog allergy often have less symptoms when around their own dog, especially if the dog was present before they were born. It’s sort of like a desensitization through frequent exposure. That doesn’t work quite as well when someone already has dog allergy and then a dog is brought in – it’s harder to get used to a new animal.
There are some steps to reduce exposure to dander inside the home:
We can also treat symptoms with a variety of medications as well. I’ve never once told a family they had to get rid of their dog. I realize the strong emotional bond that occurs with pets. Besides, if I suggested that, they wouldn’t get rid of their dog…they’d get rid of their allergist!
David Stukus, MD, is an associate professor of pediatrics in the Section of Allergy and Immunology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Dr. Dave, as his patients call him, is passionate about increasing awareness for allergies and asthma.
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