It’s a frustrating but true fact; many Australians are allergic to their four-legged friends. But what exactly causes this condition, and are there any breeds suitable for allergy sufferers? Lauren McKellar reports.
In this day and age, it’s not uncommon for people to suffer from allergies. Going to a café or restaurant, finding food that is gluten-free, lactose-free, yeast-free or nut-fee is not an out of the ordinary experience — and that’s not even starting on the meat and seafood categories.
It is of course no wonder then that pet allergies are still very much a problem for many Australians who wish they could have a pet pooch but find that the animal either irritates their skin or causes a problem with their respiratory system, resulting in rashes and hay fever-like symptoms, such as watery eyes and sneezing. But what is it about our four-legged friends that causes this effect?
Dr Stella Broderick from Essendon Veterinary Clinic has seen a lot of people who suffer from dog allergies over the years and dispels the popular myth that it is the coat of the canine that is the problem. “It’s usually dander and not loose hair that causes allergies in people,” Dr Broderick says.
For those unfamiliar with the term, dander is made up of microscopic pieces of dead skin, sometimes with a small amount of hair attached, that animals shed naturally, just as we shed skin cells. These tiny irritants can trigger allergic reactions, although some people can also become irritated from a dog’s saliva or even its urine.
With this in mind, the outlook for those suffering from allergies can seem rather bleak; however, as Dr Broderick points out, the condition isn’t as common as you might think. “More people are allergic to cats than to dogs and rabbits and mice,” she says. “But certainly dog allergies exist.”
Best breed choices
There are many people out there who will tell you that their breed of dog is “great for allergy sufferers”, however, as Dr Broderick points out, the truth is a little more complicated than that. “My understanding is there are not really any dog breeds that are particularly good for allergy sufferers,” she says. And, when you consider that one of the main problems is dander, something each dog has, this does seem to make sense.
The good news is there are many breeds of dog which seem to shed less dander than others. Popular breeds that are often heralded for producing less of this irritating substance include:
- The Schnauzer (Miniature, Standard and Giant)
- The Bichon Frise
- The Maltese
- The Xoloitzcuintli (Mexican hairless dog)
- The Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier
- The Chinese Crested
- The Kerry Blue Terrier
- The Bedlington Terrier
- The Poodle (Toy, Miniature and Standard)
Of course, anyone who has done a little research into owning a more hypoallergenic dog will know that the “oodle” mixed breeds are often discussed as being well suited to those suffering from a dander allergy.
“I love the ‘oodle’ crosses for so many reasons; their personalities, lessened chance of disease inheritance due to cross breeding, and their reduced coat shedding,” Dr Broderick says. “The latter is never guaranteed though. The pup may inherit the non-poodle parent’s hair coat qualities and still shed. They will still shed dander and will still urinate and groom themselves. Allergy sufferers hoping for a low-allergy pet might be disappointed to find that they are still allergic to poodles and their crosses.”
It really can only be determined on a case-by-case basis; what’s well suited for you may not be for another sufferer. This is even true when it comes to repeat exposure to the one household animal. “Some people’s allergies become lessened with time, for example, to their own pet, whereas other times the allergy signs worsen with repeat exposure,” Dr Broderick says.
As stated above, there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to dogs that will cause you to have an allergic reaction and those that won’t; however, with a little research, you can figure out some breeds that are definite no-nos.
If, for example, you suffer from a saliva allergy, breeds prone to excess slobber, such as the St Bernard would not be the best choice for you.
Of course, it’s not simply saliva that we react to. Touch is another issue for some allergy sufferers. “A rash can occur due to a local contact allergy with the very short-coated dogs, such as Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Shar Peis, Bulldogs, and Boxers,” Dr Broderick says, although it is fair to note that longer haired breeds may produce the same result, too.
When it comes to those with an allergy to a pet’s urine, you’d think getting any breed of dog would be fine, so long as it doesn’t toilet on you, right? While this is to an extent true, for those suffering from an allergy to a dog’s urine it’s recommended that you get a breed which is easy to train and not likely to get too excited to avoid any toileting mishaps inside the house. If any such incident does occur, it’s recommended that you clean the area thoroughly with a strong cleaner such as bleach to remove all traces of the irritant.
Control and management
So, you’ve done your research and you’ve found the breed that you think you have the least reaction to, but you’re still unsure about bringing a pet into your home while you may be prone to an allergic reaction. What are some of the steps you can take to help with this transition?
Dr Broderick recommends consulting your doctor to find out about immunotherapy options. “There are desensitisation vaccinations that can be formulated and administered to help with allergies long term. Vets and vet nurses worldwide have had this done, with varying success.”
Of course, there are other more practical steps you can take to help manage your pet irritation. Simple things such as not letting your pet inside the bedroom or other living spaces, choosing furnishings that are easy-to-clean, and engaging in frequent mopping and vacuuming can help minimise the reaction. Even practising good flea and parasite control can help some more extreme sufferers.
“We can be allergic to fleas and their by-products, and they will also make the pet groom and scratch more,” Dr Broderick says.
Washing your pet will also help control the shedding of dander and hair, although it’s important not to go overboard on the grooming side of things; if you bathe your pet too often you risk its skin becoming dry, resulting in potential excess scratching which will bring up the dander all over again.
Sadly, sometimes even with the greatest care an allergy cannot be overcome, and that is when it is time to consider another choice of pet. “Sadly, we also see pets surrendered to shelters due to allergies that people cannot live with,” Dr Broderick says. This is yet another reason why it’s so important to do your research before taking a four-legged friend home.Here are just a few things that can make life with your dog a bit easier - see them now on our DOGSLife Directory