Sep 13, 2012

Animal Dander

     Because animal dander triggers so many adverse reactions, allergists often recommend that pets be given away. In 20 years of doctor appointments for the treatment of hay fever and asthma, I was usually told on the first office visit to get rid of my cats. Like many pet lovers who receive this prescription, I refused. None of my dozen doctors offered alternative solutions, all announced in authoritative voices that there was no way to remove the problem without removing the pets and all but one expressed annoyance and irritation at patients who refuse to cooperate.

 But for every study that links pet dander to respiratory problems, others show that pet owners live longer, have happier lives, have lower stress levels and enjoy more meaningful relationships than those who don't share their lives with pets. A recent study of nursing homes showed that facilities with a resident dog have lower death rates, lower infection rates and lower staff turnover rates than those without. A study of recovering heart attack victims showed that the most significant difference between those who died within one year and those who survived was dog ownership. For many Americans, pets are members of the family. Getting rid of them, even on a doctor's orders, is as traumatic as losing a relative.

     Pet dander in carpeted homes is more of a problem than in homes with bare floors, although any rug or fabric can harbor dander. The source of the problem isn't hair that the animals shed but proteins in their saliva and flakes of skin. This is why young kittens and puppies don't trigger allergic reactions; they have no old skin to shed and therefore no dander. It isn't until the age of three or four months, or even later, that pets begin to produce the allergen. This explains how someone can develop a sudden allergy to a pet that was for months a comfortable roommate.

    Years ago my husband and I lived in a carpeted house and a few days after we steam-cleaned the carpets, we had a house guest who was violently allergic to animals. He kept looking at our cats and wondered why he wasn't sneezing. That's when we realized that animal dander in carpets can be washed away. We had wanted only to remove old stains but, as a bonus, we had a dander-free house.

    Removing dander from rugs and carpets is only part of the solution. Washing the pets themselves is just as important. Full baths were traumatic for our elderly cats, but we found they would tolerate sponge baths. Pet stores offer products just for allergy grooming: solutions you can apply with a damp cloth or spray onto dogs, cats and birds. As an alternative, simply use plain water or an herbal tea. Don't use soap; it's too harsh, strips away protective oils and is difficult to rinse out. The secret to success in using any pet allergy product is reaching the skin. Look for dander removal products in pet supply catalogs or check with your veterinarian, groomer or pet store. If you start when a kitten is tiny, you can even convince a cat to enjoy baths. My husband's red tabby, Pumpkin, was famous for his love of water. Every week I filled a spray bottle with lukewarm chamomile tea (recommended for blonds and redheads), sat on the floor, spread towels on my lap and soaked him to the skin while he purred and kneaded. After a vigorous drying off, he would lie in the sun until his fur was once again gorgeous, fluffy, sweet-smelling and nonallergenic.

    Dog and cat owners who give their animals raw food, digestive enzymes, high-quality foods, fish oils and other nutritional supplements usually notice a rapid improvement in their animal's coat: glossy fur, healthy skin and a substantial reduction in flaking or dandruff. It makes sense to reduce the production of dander at its source.

     Brush pets outdoors or wear a pollen mask while brushing inside near an air filter and follow with immediate vacuuming to reduce the accumulation of new dander. Remember that cat dander is so light that most vacuum cleaners merely redistribute it; if you're serious about controlling dander and dust mites, you need a vacuum cleaner equipped with special high-filtration bags. For best results, use carpet steam-cleaning equipment as well.

Of course, in some cases radical measures are necessary. Some people have had to find new homes for their pets when other measures failed to prevent life-threatening asthma attacks in themselves or their children. The strategies described here don't work for everyone but what many pet owners don't realize is that these strategies exist at all. I believe they're worth trying before dogs and cats are banished from any caring home.

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