Many people with asthma or COPD find they have an allergic reaction to certain animals. Yet, even if exposure triggers symptoms, this doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t own a pet. What are the pros, cons and lifestyle hacks around pet ownership?
Dogs and cats both shed hair and skin, and they also carry billions of microbes that add to the vast array of bacteria, viruses and fungi that live alongside us in our homes and offices. As we now know, most of these germs are just part of life – they form the “indoor microbiome” that helps our immune systems develop properly.
We also know that airborne allergens can trigger asthma or COPD symptoms such as wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. Whether or not it’s a good idea to share your home with pets -- furry, feathery or even scaly -- depends on how you or others in your household react to the dander, saliva and other microbes that accompany any animal. Likewise, whether and how well these pet-related triggers can be avoided, or the symptoms managed, varies from person to person.
Luckily, even if your airways are sensitive to your non-human friends, there are plenty of things to try before you give up the dream of owning a pet. You could train your dog to avoid certain spaces, minimise kitty cuddles and kisses, or remove carpet and rugs from your home. Keeping indoors clean and dust-free may help, and you could talk with your doctor about medications or adjustments to your treatment if symptoms are still making your life unpleasant.
If you’re considering a pet but you’re not sure how it might affect your asthma or COPD, a trial run could be a good idea. Spending personal time with your potential housemate isn’t foolproof, but might give you an indication of your degree of sensitivity. Bear in mind that allergic reactions can differ not just from species to species, but also with individual animals. You might find a furred (or feathered) companion – and living arrangement – that works for you.
If owning a dog or a cat doesn’t look feasible, fish, reptiles or even amphibians might be viable alternatives. They can be fun pets, and while any animal can potentially spark sensitivities, these creatures tend to be less allergenic. If all else fails, for young family members, a virtual pet or interactive toy to love and care for may be a good option.
There are several good reasons not to give up on having a pet. For example, the right companion animal can contribute to mental wellbeing, and the health benefits of regular dog walking can be just what the doctor ordered for people with asthma or COPD.
When it comes to the scientific benefits of pet ownership on allergies and asthma in adulthood, it’s fair to say that the debate is ongoing. However, what the studies are showing more clearly is that pet-keeping in early infancy is likely to protect a child from developing allergies. In fact, exposure to all sorts of animals in early life correlates with reduced allergy and asthma rates in later life.
Keeping a dog, cat or other pet might work for some people and not for others – the pros and cons will weigh up differently in every household. What’s worth remembering is that if asthma or COPD are an issue, seek advice from your doctor and try some simple changes in your household. You may find that after all it’s both possible to enjoy your life with asthma and have a beloved pet, too.
By Sarah Hudson
Photo by iStock
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Hesselmar B, Hicke-Roberts A, Lundell AC, Adlerberth I, Rudin A, et al. (2018) Pet-keeping in early life reduces the risk of allergy in a dose-dependent fashion. PLOS ONE 13(12): e0208472. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0208472
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