Cat and Dog Dander Goes to School

Last updated: June 2022

When my middle son was in 2nd grade, we struggled to control his asthma. He had been hospitalized a few times over the years due to respiratory illnesses. We could not figure out why he kept having asthma attacks in school. No matter what treatment plan we tried, we could not control his asthma.

Our asthma doctor (Asthma Doc) had taught us what we needed to do to make sure our home was allergy and asthma friendly. That meant removing old carpet and refinishing the wood floors (while we were out of the house of course), changing the furnace filter frequently, using portable air purifiers, and keeping things clean and clutter-free.

But school was another story. Over the first few months of 2nd grade, I had several calls from the school to alert me that my son was having an asthma attack.

An asthma attack at school

One particular time, I was breathless as I arrived at his classroom. I could see that my son was having a hard time breathing. I grabbed him to drive the two blocks home to do a nebulizer breathing treatment. The substitute teacher said, “Can you help clean up his desk before you go?”

“What?!” I asked her. “He’s having an asthma attack and needs a breathing treatment!”

The substitute said, “Oh, well in that case...”

What's triggering his asthma attacks at school?

After his breathing treatment, I called Asthma Doc. I couldn’t figure out why my son was fine at home but kept having asthma attacks at school. Asthma Doc was also baffled. He asked me if I thought my son was faking it.

I told him, "no!" My son was coughing so hard he was about to throw up. I could also HEAR my son’s voice change when his asthma flared up.

Literally.

His voice would sound higher and “tighter.”

On a hunch, Asthma Doc thought we should test Middle Son for allergies. It made sense because I had terrible allergies, as did my husband and my oldest son.

Bingo!

Sure enough, Middle Son was VERY allergic to cats and dogs. For those of you who have had allergy testing, you know how much “fun” it is to get the scratch test done on your back. And then you get to lie still for 20 minutes while the welts form. The bigger the welt, the more allergic you are.

The biggest welts on my son’s back were from the dog and cat serum. I was baffled because we didn’t have any pets.

Asthma Doc said he had other pediatric patients who would sit next to another kid in the classroom who had cat or dog dander on their clothes, and that was enough exposure to start an asthma attack for a student who had allergies and asthma.

How can we solve this problem?

What could we do about that? Send a lint roller and roll the kids off when they came into the classroom? There’s no way we could remove all of the dander, and we couldn’t ask the students in his class to get rid of their pets. That would have gone over well...

So, Middle Son started allergy shots. That took 5 loooooong years. A few years into his treatment, my oldest son started allergy shots. And a few years after that, his little sister started allergy shots. We practically lived at Asthma Doc's office for about 10 years.

Did Middle Son stop having asthma attacks in class? Yes, for the most part. Controlling his allergies helped control his asthma.

Figuring out what was triggering his asthma was the hard part. I felt like a detective! Maybe it was all of those Nancy Drew mysteries I read growing up.

Has anyone else found a baffling reason why you, or a loved one, are having asthma attacks? What did you do about it? Share your story with us by clicking the button below.

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