Dogs and Asthma: Should You or Shouldn't You Have One?
If you have the allergic type of asthma, you may have been told you shouldn't have a dog. That's a hard pill to swallow for pet lovers like me. So, you may be wondering if dogs are truly a threat to your asthma control.
For asthma sufferers who have allergic sensitivities, and that's about 60% of us1, pets are one of the more common allergens. In fact, close to a third of us are allergic to cats and/or dogs. Cat allergies are twice as common as dog allergies.2
So, yes, if you are one of those pet-sensitive people, being around dogs could trigger your asthma symptoms and threaten your asthma control. But that may or may not mean you have to give away your furballs of love.
How do dogs trigger asthma symptoms?
Many people believe it's the hair of dogs and cats that contain the allergens that trigger symptoms such as wheezing and coughing. However, this is not accurate. It's actually tiny flakes of skin, called dander, that are most likely to contain allergens. Dog saliva and urine also contain allergens and can adhere to the dander.
It's not always coming into contact with the actual animal that is the threat either. Pet dander and other allergens can collect on furniture, rugs, bedding, clothing and even walls. And it often stays there for months.2 It can also be transferred via clothing, so you might be exposed to a pet allergen even in places where pets do not reside.
The level of sensitivity varies among people. If you are severely allergic to dogs, your symptoms might trigger as soon as there is contact and not subside for hours, or even days. If your sensitivity level is low, you might actually have a reaction days after contact.
So, it seems that people who have asthma and are allergic to dogs may risk poor asthma control as dog owners. But wait--there's another school of thought.
Could dogs actually help prevent asthma?
There is some evidence that children who grow up in a household with dogs may actually have less risk of developing asthma than kids who live in a dog-free home. One study found that growing up with dogs as associated with a lower risk of developing asthma, especially if the dogs are female.3
Studies in the past have identified a link between growing up with dogs and a lower risk of asthma in children. This Swedish study strove to examine whether certain characteristics of dogs had any bearing on this relationship. Here are some of the details of this study:
- Study included all children born in Sweden from 2001 through 2004 who also had a dog in the home during their first year of life
- There were 23,585 individuals
- Dogs were classified by sex, breed, number, size and whether they were thought to be hypoallergenic
- Asthma risk based on a diagnosis of asthma and/or asthma medication prescription by age 6
Many different factors and their relationships to each other were analyzed. In the end, researchers concluded that living in a home with a female dog did lower the risk of developing asthma. This same link did not appear to apply to male dogs, although living with a male dog was also not any riskier than living with no dog at all. They also found that kids who lived in a home with 2 or more dogs had an even lower risk for asthma.
It seems that being exposed to dogs from birth might desensitize the child to the allergens, thus preventing the development of allergic asthma?
What about hypoallergenic dogs?
Another factor the researchers in Sweden looked at was the effect exposure to so-called "hypoallergic dogs" might have on asthma. First of all, we must understand that there really is no guarantee that any particular breed of dog will not emit allergens. Despite the fact that the American Kennel Club (AKC) lists 19 "allergy-friendly" breeds, don't be fooled. This classification seems mainly based on the fact that those breeds tend to have coats that do little shedding.
Here's the thing, though. As stated above, it's not the dog hair that actually triggers allergy and asthma symptoms. Dog hair can harbor pet dander, urine and saliva, not to mention dust and pollen. But, those true allergens can get into the air even without shedding. Simply petting or brushing a dog can send the allergens airborne, where they can stay for a long time.2
It's true that certain breeds may not shed much and may be somewhat less likely to trigger asthma symptoms. But, it's not true that the dog is actually hypoallergenic. It may be somewhat safer for the allergic person, but coming into contact with the dog could still trigger a sensitive person. The study referenced earlier definitely did not find that having a hypoallergenic breed lowered the risk of asthma.
Tips if you must have a pet
If you're a dog lover and not ready to go dog-free, then here are a few steps you can follow. These actions can help minimize your exposure to pet dander and other allergens. So you and your fur baby may still be able to live together, while you stay relatively healthy with your asthma under control.
- Vacuum up pet dander and hair from floors and furniture frequently
- Keep pets off your bed, if possible, or at least wash your bed linens frequently
- Groom your dog regularly to decrease circulating allergens
If you are an adult who has asthma and you are sensitive to dog allergens, then you have a decision to make. Your doctor can help you weigh all the factors and decide whether it is safe to continue having a dog or not. The final decision may depend on how much of a threat your dog allergy is to your asthma control.
For parents of children trying to decide whether or not to have (or keep) dogs in the family, there does seem to be some evidence that exposing kids to dogs early in life may provide some protection. However, the researchers from Sweden emphasize that a more rigorous study is needed to fully understand this evidence. Again, it is probably safer to make decisions in conjunction with your physician.
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