There’s little doubt that people love dogs. In the U.S. alone, about 40% of all households have at least one dog in residence, outdone only by Australia at 68% and the UK at 43%. This may seem a bit remarkable considering the additional fact that millions of people across the globe are affected by a dog allergy. However, what’s even more surprising is that symptoms may persist in some people despite not even owning a dog. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, pet dander is so rampant an airborne allergen that it can be found in virtually every home everywhere, whether a dog lives there or not. Obviously, being allergic to man’s best friend is nothing to sneeze at.
The mechanism behind dog allergy is similar to other allergic reactions. Basically, the immune system interprets the introduction of a particular substance, or allergen, as a foreign object that must be targeted for destruction. To carry out this mission, the immune system deploys a number of helpers, namely antibodies such as phagocytes, lymphocytes, and macrophages. Like little soldiers, these specialized cells rush to the site of the allergen to launch an attack. Unfortunately, inflammation is the consequence for this offensive and sneezing, watery eyes, and cough the reward.
Most people believe that dog allergy is related to how much fur the animal has, but this isn’t true. In fact, two different dogs of the same breed can trigger symptoms in a person with dog allergy to very different degrees. The real culprit behind dog allergy is the animal’s dander, which is composed of microscopic flakes of dead skin. Since all dogs have skin, this allows us to dispel another myth about dog allergy: There is no such thing as a “non-allergenic” breed. However, since some people with mild dog allergy can sometimes tolerate shorthaired breeds or those that tend to shed less, it would be generously fair to say that some dogs may be slightly hypoallergenic at best.
There is some evidence to suggest that early exposure to a pet in childhood may possibly reduce the risk of pet allergy. However, this led to another common misconception that a child will grow out of a dog or cat allergy if given the chance to live with one long enough. Unfortunately, this is a gamble that risks a broken heart for the child. It’s also the kind of faulty thinking that has led to many pets being placed in shelters.
The good news is that taking diligent care to reduce the level of dander in the home can significantly decrease dog allergy symptoms. Of course, this means frequent floor washing and vacuuming, preferably with a machine that uses a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. It also means regular grooming and brushing of the dog. However, there is no evidence to indicate that frequent bathing of the animal will reduce dander output, which is no doubt a welcome relief for both dog and master.
There is also an allergy treatment to consider, which involves undergoing a series of allergy shots. While immunotherapy may not completely eliminate symptoms, some clinicians estimate a near 50 percent success rate. In any event, please refrain from chemically treating the dog to make him less of an allergen source. These treatments, once popular in the 1990s, have proven to be ineffective. They also involve subjecting the animal to a daily dose of acepromazine, a tranquilizer that can lead to cardiovascular problems in dogs if given long-term.