America is a nation of pet lovers!  As a matter of fact, it is estimated that, across the country, Americans have around 100 million pets! They provide comfort, companionship and joy and are an important part of many households.

This is why pet allergies are such a concern for so many people, especially if there is a child with asthma in the household.  For while around 5-10% of the general population has pet allergies, for asthmatic children, the number is closer to 30%.  These allergies can cause asthma attacks, which remains the number one reason, nationwide, why parents take kids to the emergency room. This can mean that parents of asthmatic children can face some tough choices when it comes to the question of pets.

What Causes Pet Allergies?

Contrary to popular belief, it is not the pet’s actual fur that causes an allergic reaction. People are actually allergic to the proteins found in the pet’s dried saliva, urine and dander (which is a medical term for sloughed-off dead skin cells).  The pet’s fur can also harbor other allergens like dust mites, mold and pollen.  A child who hugs or kiss a pet, sleeps near them or even just pets them can breathe these airborne allergens in or can transfer them through the hands by eating food or rubbing the nose or eyes without first washing the hands.

Are Some Pets Better for Allergies than Others?

To begin with, parents and children need to both understand that there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic pet: all cats and dogs shed these proteins from urine, saliva and dead skin cells. However, there are some breeds of cats and dogs which can reduce the amount of allergens a child is exposed to. Terriers, poodles and other breeds which do not develop (and shed) winter coats and some cat species like Siberian or Russian blues do shed less.  For some kids, choosing a breed like this can make it more likely that they will be able to keep their pets. Some children are so allergic, however, that any breed can cause a reaction.

How Can You Avoid Getting Rid of a Pet?

If you make the decision to try to keep the family pet, there are some ways to help reduce your child’s exposure and chances of allergic reactions. These include the following tips and suggestions:

  • Keep pets out of your child’s sleeping and playing areas
  • If possible and safe for the pet, keep the pet outside
  • Teach your child not to kiss or hug their pet (this can be a tough one!)
  • Be sure your pets are neutered: unneutered tom cats are particularly bad for producing high amounts of dander and other allergens
  • Make sure you use a HEPA filter in your home to clean the air; this has proven to be especially good for cat allergies
  • Avoid carpeting in the home if possible; vacuum and dust once a week and try to use products like Swiffer which are electrostatic and will pick up pet hair and dander more easily
  • Wash your pet or wipe them down with a damp cloth twice a week; it has been shown that a twice weekly treatment can help reduce dander by as much as 85%.
  • Teach your child to wash hands after playing with a pet; if you have an outdoor pet, then if possible have them remove their clothes in the laundry room and take a quick shower when coming in from playing with the pet to avoid tracking any dander into their bedrooms.
  • Make sure your child’s allergies and asthma are under control with some combination of oral antihistamines (like Zyrtec), nasal sprays, eye drops, asthma inhalers and, if needed, long-term immunotherapy (allergy shots). You and your doctor can sit down and talk about what combination of medications will best meet your child’s needs.

In short, keeping a pet when your asthmatic child has a pet allergy can mean a lot of extra work. Also, for some kids, even if parents follow the guidelines above, the allergies are so strong that they can simply not be around pets without developing a reaction, in which case you will have to go to the next level and remove the pet from the home.

What is the Best Way to Remove a Pet from the Home?

The short and honest answer is that there is no good way to remove a pet from the home – and it can affect not only the child himself but other family members as well, since most people consider their pets to be part of the family. Here are some tips, however, that might make this difficult transition a little easier to cope with:

  • Sit down with your child and explain as gently as you can that you will have to find a new home for the family pet
  • Make sure the child understands that you are not doing this to punish them and that it is not their fault
  • Explain that not having the pet will make it less likely that they will have allergy and asthma attacks and can hopefully stay out of the hospital or emergency room
  • Make sure that other siblings in the family also understanding the situation and don’t blame that child with asthma for having to get rid of the pet
  • If possible, let your child meet the people who are going to take your pet so that they can be reassured that the pet is going to a good home

In short, pet allergies – especially with more vulnerable, asthmatic children – are difficult to deal with, whether that involves trying to keep the family pet or find it a new home. For some children, however, simply reducing exposure and making sure that allergies and asthma are medically managed can be enough to contain the problem!