Furry pets: man’s not-so-best friend

Cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters and other furry pets create that warm feeling for millions of pet owners around, but, for me, they have given nothing but suffering and hives. After developing a severe rash on my back at age four from touching old, dusty music scores, I was discovered to have a severe allergy to the feces of dust mites, the microscopic creatures that live on house dust. Since pet dander was a significant component of dust, the allergy specialist advised my parents not to get any pets with fur or feathers. It was a choice between “give your child breathing problems and rashes” or “watch him cry over not having Whiskers.” They decided upon the latter. Those allergic to the dander itself have an entirely different problem. While it may trap dander, the animal hair, in this case, is not what leads to allergy symptoms. In about 10 percent of all Americans, the immune system reacts to the main component of dander, the microscopic skin scales shed by pets. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, just 15 to 30 minutes of contact with an animal, especially a cat, can induce acute allergy symptoms. For those with asthma, dander, saliva and other airborne animal particles may trigger an asthma attack. Cats are the worst offenders, which create severe attacks in 20 to 30 percent of asthmatics and can sometimes cause chronic asthma. But simply refraining from being around pets doesn’t completely solve the problem, since clothing is excellent at trapping dander. Someone who has been in contact with a pet could easily transfer dander to a location without pets. Therefore, those with severe allergies or asthma must take care to clean their houses aggressively, regardless of whether or not they have pets. The Foundation recommends taking steps such as vacuuming with a dust mask, removing carpet, and scrubbing all walls and woodwork in the home. A “hypoallergenic” animal, such as the one chosen by President Obama as the “First Dog,” doesn’t help all that much, either. Hypoallergenic animals do reduce allergy symptoms, either by having a smaller surface area (think Chihuahuas), barking less (and spray less allergy-causing saliva into the air) or not shedding fur, but the general consensus among allergists is that the best solution is simply for those with allergies to avoid all pets: All dogs and cats have skin and saliva, so no pet is completely harmless. So do those with asthma or allergies a favor: Get a reptile such as a turtle or lizard. Or a fish. Or two.