Pet Dander and Asthma

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Animal dander is a common trigger for asthma symptoms from wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath to full-blown asthma attacks. Both furry and feathered animals produce dander, which is made up of proteins from hair, skin flakes, urine, feces, and saliva.

Since dander is shed from an animal's body, you can be exposed to it without even touching an animal. All you have to do is come in contact with something an animal has slept on, played with, or otherwise come in contact with themselves.

Dogs and cats are the animals that most commonly induce symptoms of allergic asthma due to their shedding of dander.

British cat and Golden Retriever
chendongshan / Getty Images

Symptoms of Reactions to Dander

If you have asthma, you can develop a variety of respiratory effects in response to animal dander. You may notice symptoms immediately after exposure or you may begin to develop the effects hours afterward.

Often, animal dander can cause allergy symptoms rather than typical symptoms of asthma, including:

  • Runny and stuffy nose
  • Scratchy throat
  • Watery, itchy, red eyes
  • A rash or irritated skin

When traditional asthma symptoms occur in response to animal dander exposure, they can include:

Exposure to higher amounts of animal dander is associated with more severe symptoms and a higher risk of asthma attacks.

When you have an asthma attack, you can also experience lightheadedness or even loss of consciousness due to decreased oxygen levels, especially if your respiratory distress isn't treated promptly.

Over time, recurrent asthma symptoms and asthma attacks will damage your lungs, resulting in difficulty breathing even in the absence of triggers.

Causes

Dander proteins are particles that are carried through the air. These may be present whether an animal is in the same room with you or not.

You can inhale them through your nose or mouth, or they can get into your lungs if you touch them and then touch your nose or mouth. As the particles are so small, you may not even realize you're around them until you have a reaction.

Exposure to pet dander can trigger symptoms in people who have asthma, but pets and dander don't cause asthma to develop.

Rather, animal dander contains endotoxins, which are chemicals that induce a harmful physical reaction. These stimulate immune cells and proteins, specifically immunoglobulin E (IgE).

If you have asthma, you are prone to episodes of bronchoconstriction or bronchospasm due to a variety of triggers. The immune reaction that occurs due to dander, in this case, results in this airway narrowing and/or sudden airway spasm.

People with asthma who tend to have severe reactions to dander may not be able to own pets or be around animals much at all. This doesn't necessarily mean their asthma is a severe type—it just means dander is a symptom trigger for them.

Diagnosis

Self-reported symptoms are very helpful to doctors working to identify the reason for asthma exacerbations. With animal dander and asthma, however, identifying patterns of symptoms can be challenging.

If, say, you have trouble breathing every time you're around your aunt's fluffy dog, that may be obvious. But there are other cases when you might experience asthma symptoms without being aware you've come in contact with pet dander at all. And the fact that symptoms could be mild or delayed can make finding such connections that much harder.

Try your best to pay attention to your animal exposures and your symptoms. Note when they occur, what they involve, and what types of animals you were around when they happened.

Present this to your doctor, who will review the information and may conduct a skin prick test to help identify the cause of your symptoms.

Treatment

The best treatment for asthma reactions to animal dander is to avoid exposure altogether. But this isn't always realistic. You and your family may be too attached to the family pet to consider rehoming them, you may need the help of a service animal, or you might regularly encounter animal dander at friends' homes or even at your place of work.

Medical therapies to both prevent and treat reactions are available, and lifestyle changes can also go a long way in reducing related symptoms.

Preventive Medication

Preventive treatments include taking inhaled corticosteroids or antihistamines before being around animals. For example, Xolair (omalizumab) is an injectable medication that can be used to prevent pet allergen‐induced asthma.

Allergen injection immunotherapy—also known as subcutaneous immunotherapy (SCIT) or, more simply, allergy shots—involves a doctor repeatedly injecting small amounts of an allergen just beneath the skin. This will eventually reduce a person's allergic response to the allergen and has been used to treat animal dander-induced asthmatic reactions with some success.

In fact, in updated guidelines for asthma treatment issued in December 2020, the National Institutes of Health recommended SCIT in addition to standard medication for people over age 5 with mild to moderate asthma that is controlled at the initiation, build-up, and maintenance phases of immunotherapy. This approach is not advisable for people with severe asthma.

Emergency Medication

Inhaled short-acting beta-agonists (SABAs) are bronchodilators that quickly open the airways. Also known as rescue inhalers, these treatments can help alleviate asthma symptoms after they begin.

Lifestyle Strategies

If your reaction to pet dander is mild, you could consider the following strategies for reducing exposure. Note, however, that according to the NIH guidelines, measures such as these should be used in conjunction with medication and other mitigating approaches, as they are not likely to be effective on their own. For example, keeping your cat out of your bedroom may help but will not be enough to prevent asthma symptoms alone.

  • Change clothes after prolonged playing or exposure to your pet.
  • Make your pet an "outside only" animal if possible and appropriate.
  • Stay away from your pet's favorite furniture.
  • Keep your pet out of bedrooms and other places where you spend a lot of time.
  • Ask your veterinarian if bathing your pet more frequently could help.
  • If you live with a family member or roommate who doesn't have asthma, ask that they bathe the pet, as well as clean the cage, living space, or litter box.
  • Remove wall-to-wall carpet. Consider hardwood, tile, or linoleum flooring as it won't retain allergens as much as carpeting does. If that's not an option, steam clean carpet frequently.
  • Use HEPA air filters to help reduce dander exposure.
  • Wear a dust mask while vacuuming. (Note: Frequent vacuuming does not decrease dander exposure, but using a HEPA vacuum filter or double bag may help.)

If you are considering a "trial removal" of an animal from your home—sending your cat to a friend's house for a while to see if your asthma improves, for example—know that this might not give you the answers you are looking for. Dander can remain in your house until you do a thorough cleaning to remove the residue, meaning you can be affected by it even though your pet is not there.

Safer Pets for Asthma

If you or your child has asthma and you don't already have a pet, but want one, try spending time with someone who has the animal you are considering before you take the plunge.

While there are no pets that are completely hypoallergenic, some animals produce less allergen than others and might be a better choice if you really want a pet.

Alternatively, consider animals that typically do not cause or worsen allergies like:

  • Turtles
  • Hermit crabs
  • Aquarium fish
  • Snakes

A Word From Verywell

People who have asthma may experience a reaction to animal dander at any age. For example, you could have symptoms during your childhood, adolescence, and/or adulthood, but you might not necessarily experience them throughout your whole life.

It may take some time for you, your family, and your doctor to pinpoint animal dander as a trigger of your asthma symptoms. Once you do, try your very best to avoid dander so you can minimize your need for medication—especially emergency asthma treatments.

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