When the Obama family was looking for a dog to share their home in the White House, they had to take daughter Malia's allergies into consideration. The family settled on Bo, a Portuguese water dog, because the breed is considered to be hypoallergenic. So far the match seems to have been a good one.
Among the other dog breeds considered to be hypoallergenic are poodles, schnauzers and shih tzus. Some cat breeds, including Balinese, Oriental shorthair and sphynx (hairless) also fall into the hypoallergenic category.
So, are these breeds really hypoallergenic, and can people who suffer from allergies live comfortably with them?
"There really isn't a hypoallergenic pet," says Closter allergist Dr. Neeta Ogden. "Every pet carries allergens in its skin, saliva and urine. It's thought that some dogs may elicit less severe symptoms, likely because they shed less dander."
While it's possible that an allergy sufferer could live in relative comfort with a low-shedding breed, Ogden doesn't recommend it. And getting an animal other than a dog or cat likely won't solve the problem either.
"Once someone is allergic to anything – pollen, animals, food – they are predisposed to allergies in general," Ogden says. "So these people would be more likely to be allergic to other pets and other allergens. If someone has pet allergies, the best thing to do is to avoid getting a pet altogether."
For families who decide to share their homes with a pet, even when someone in the home has allergies, Ogden says the key to minimizing symptoms is to limit the allergic individual's exposure to the pet. Studies have shown that washing and brushing the pet frequently – two or three times a week – helps reduce dander. Frequently washing the pet's toys and bedding can also help reduce allergens in the home.
"The allergic person just shouldn't be the one brushing or washing the pet," Ogden says.
If you experience sneezing, itchy or watery eyes, runny nose or congestion after being near a dog or cat, you might have an allergy. Also, contact with a pet might trigger skin allergy symptoms, including itchy skin or raised, red patches. Pets can also trigger asthma, causing wheezing, difficulty breathing or chest tightness.
Allergy testing performed by an allergist or immunologist is the best method to diagnose exactly what you are allergic to and to develop a personalized plan to manage your symptoms.
Allergy shots have a proven track record as an effective form of long-term treatment. Other ways for allergy sufferers to minimize symptoms include:
• Avoid hugging and kissing pets.
• Keep pets out of the bedroom and off upholstered furniture.
• Have someone else in the family brush the pet regularly (and outdoors).
• Ask your vet to recommend a well-balanced diet for your pet to minimize hair loss and reduce dander.
• Use a double or micro-filter bag in the vacuum to reduce the amount of pet allergens present in carpeting.