Allergies don't have to rule out pet ownership

Melissa Kossler Dutton
Hayliee Roberts and her mother, Brandy, with one of the cats they recently adopted.

When Brandy Roberts' 6-year-old daughter asked for a pet kitten, the Grove City mother was torn.

Roberts, who developed an allergy to cats as a teen, didn't want to become miserable in her home but she wanted to make Hayliee happy.

Realizing that some cats cause more severe allergic reactions than others, she set out to find a cat she could live with. She was willing to take the occasional allergy pill, but knew she could not stand the painful eye swelling and irritation she experienced in the presence of some cats.

Her approach is similar to what Dr. David Stukus would recommend.

The assistant professor of pediatrics, who specializes in allergy and immunology at Nationwide Children's Hospital, understands that parents or children with minor allergy symptoms might prefer treatment to giving up a family pet.

Problems would arise for people who were unable to take allergy medicine or who did not experience relief from it, Stukus said. When allergies are untreatable and cause breathing or sleeping issues, he encourages patients to look at other solutions.

"It's well established that poorly controlled allergy symptoms can impact our abilities at school or work," he said.

Allergy symptoms can affect people's sleep, make them more susceptible to other illnesses, decrease their activity levels and negatively impact their quality of life, Stukus said.

However, in many cases, allergy medicine combined with good housekeeping can allow people with allergies to share a home with a pet, Stukus said. Pet allergies are caused by dander - sticky, microscopic materials produced by cats, dogs, rodents, birds and other animals with fur or feathers. All cats and dogs have dander regardless of their hair length or frequency of shedding, he said.

If symptoms can be relieved by medication, the "vast majority of people" would be fine taking medicine either daily or as needed to treat allergies, he said. Parents should confer with their child's doctor before starting any allergy medication, he said.

He also encourages people to vacuum frequently, regularly wash the pet and keep it out of the bedroom to further minimize the exposure.

Making sure a pet is eating right also can impact the amount of dander it produces, added Rachel Finney, executive director of the Capital Area Humane Society near Hilliard. Pets with a poor diet produce more dander, she said.

The nonprofit organization often receives calls from people who discover someone in the family has an allergy to a pet. The society encourages families to contact them as soon as they discover a problem. The organization does have tips and suggestions that can help families manage the situation. If families determine they cannot keep the animal, the society can help them find alternative solutions.

"There's no judgment," Finney said. "They come to us because they need help."

When Roberts decided to get a kitten, she visited several shelters and interacted with a variety of animals to see which ones caused her the least amount of discomfort. She shied away from cats that caused her eyes to water and swell.

While no breed is allergy-free, individuals may find they are more impacted by one breed or another, Stukus said.

When Flynn and Anna joined the household in December, Roberts made sure to regularly bathe them with baby wipes and wash her hands after handling the kittens. She has taken over-the-counter allergy medicine a couple of times, but has experienced no major reactions. She attributes it to choosing the right cat and trying to reduce pet dander.

"It's just what people are willing to do," she said. "My 6-year-old wanted these cats and I was going to figure something out."