Tips for managing pet allergy symptoms

By Jean Cherry, BSN, MBA Apr 01, 2021 • 5 min

Worried you or your child may be allergic to a pet?

Pet allergies are quite common — in fact, 3 out of 10 people with allergies have allergic reactions to cats or dogs. And with 63 million dog and 43 million cat owners in 67% of all households in the U.S., it's highly likely you'll experience an allergic reaction in your own home or in the home of a friend or family member.

What are the symptoms of pet allergies?

Pet allergy symptoms include a runny nose, sneezing, coughingwheezing, watery, itchy eyes and rashes. Most pet allergies occur during or shortly after coming into contact with a cat or dog while petting or playing with them. Even if a pet is not present, allergens may collect on furniture, walls, clothing or remain in the air for several months. A scratch or lick by a pet may cause a skin rash. Some people who are highly sensitive to pet allergies can have wheezing, shortness of breath or a severe asthma attack within 15–30 minutes.

What causes pet allergies?

People with pet allergies have an immune system that is overly sensitive to harmless proteins found in a pet's dander (dead skin cells), saliva and urine. Allergens are substances that cause allergic reactions, and while pet hair is not an allergen, it is a carrier of dander, saliva and urine.

Vacuuming, dusting and other household activities can make these allergens airborne. Once airborne, allergens can enter through the nose and eyes, causing those membranes to swell and itch. Contrary to popular belief, there is no hypoallergenic dog or cat breed. Research on dogs has shown no difference in the level of dog allergen in homes with dog breeds cited as hypoallergenic versus nonhypoallergenic.

How is a pet allergy diagnosed?

The best way to know if you have a pet allergy is to have a skin prick allergy test performed by an allergist or immunologist. The test consists of placing a small amount of cat or dog allergen on your skin and pricking the skin to allow a small amount of allergen to get under the skin. An allergy is signaled if there is swelling or redness at the site after 15–20 minutes. Several allergens may be tested at the same time to rule out other environmental factors. The allergist will develop a plan specific to your individual needs to manage symptoms.

How can pet allergy symptoms be managed?

The best method for pet allergy management is removing the pet from the home and avoiding contact with cats and dogs in areas where they live. When that is not possible, there are some ways to minimize symptoms.

  • Keep pets out of the bedroom
  • Remove carpet or steam clean carpets frequently
  • Wear a mask when vacuuming and use a double or microfilter vacuum bag
  • Do not pet, kiss or hug a cat or dog
  • Wash hands and change clothes immediately after touching a pet
  • Ask someone who does not have allergies to groom your pet regularly outdoors and wash it every week
  • Place a high-efficiency particulate air or HEPA air cleaner in the bedroom or living area and run it
  • When visiting friends or family, place animals outdoors as a temporary solution

Keep in mind that even if a pet is removed from the home, pet dander may remain for six months or more.

What are the treatments for pet allergies?

An allergist can prescribe or suggest over-the-counter options for treatment.

  • Steroid nasal sprays and oral antihistamines may help with nasal symptoms
  • Eye symptoms can be treated with antihistamine eye drops
  • Inhaled corticosteroids or bronchodilators can prevent or relieve respiratory symptoms
  • Immunotherapy with allergy shots may be effective, as they build tolerance with increasing doses of the allergen over time

For more information about managing pet allergies or finding an allergist in your area, check out these websites:

Clinically reviewed April 2021.