People often think their asthma is triggered by animal hair, but if pets are a trigger for you, you’re probably allergic to proteins found in the animal's flakes of skin (dander), saliva, urine or even fine particles from bird feathers known as ‘feather dust’.
Touching or inhaling these allergens causes your immune system to overreact, leading to your asthma symptoms getting worse.
Lots of pets can trigger allergic asthma symptoms, from cats, dogs and horses, to rabbits, hamsters, mice and gerbils, and birds. You might be allergic to just one type of animal or more than one.
Animal allergies can develop at any stage of life. Even if you had a pet when you were younger and didn’t react to it, you could be allergic to the same type of animal now.
Spot the symptoms
Most people with an allergy to animals react quickly – often within a few minutes. Some people might not notice symptoms until several hours later.
As well as asthma symptoms, you might have other symptoms like an itchy, watery nose and eyes, sneezing and coughing.
If you’re highly allergic to animals, you might have severe breathing problems, as well as a fast heart rate, feeling clammy, feeling faint and even collapsing – an extreme reaction called anaphylaxis.
See if you feel better after time away from your pet
If your asthma symptoms get better after being away from your pet – for example on holiday – you may be allergic to them.
Remember, though, that moving your pet to a different room or outside may not prevent asthma symptoms, because the allergens can stay in your carpet, furniture and clothes.
Even if you re-home your pet, you may still have symptoms for some time.
Get an allergy test
The only way to confirm if you have an animal allergy is by getting your doctor to refer you for a skin prick test and/or blood test. Don’t be tempted to buy a home allergy testing kit – these may not be reliable.
If you're confident that you (and anyone else who lives with you) don't have an allergy to animals, it's okay to have a pet if you have asthma.
But if you start getting asthma symptoms that you think are caused by your pet:
- take your preventer medicines as prescribed. Taking your preventer medicine is the most important thing you can do to make it less likely that you’ll react to your asthma triggers.
- see your GP or asthma nurse as soon as possible. Tell them you think your symptoms might be caused by your pet or an animal. They can review your asthma treatment, and update your written asthma action plan, to make sure your asthma is as well managed as possible.
- keep pets outside as much as possible, or limit them to a particular area of your home – ideally without carpets. And keep them out of your bedroom.
- ask someone who doesn’t have allergies to groom or bathe your pet regularly. This might help to reduce the amount of allergens they shed.
- wash your pet’s bedding and toys regularly, and any soft furnishings they sleep on.
- if your pet lives in a cage, clean it regularly. Ask someone who doesn’t have allergies to do this and to do it outside. Replace any bedding or litter that has urine on it. If possible, don’t use sawdust in their cage as this could trigger asthma symptoms.
- think about trying an air filter and/or a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter. Some people find these helpful to manage pet allergies, although the evidence on the benefits remains unclear.
- try using fans or air conditioning in the rooms where you spend the most time, or keep windows open when you can.
- dust with a damp cloth as often as possible. This will help to keep pet dander to a minimum.
- have an allergy test before you decide to rehome your pet. Something else may be setting off your asthma symptoms, such as smoke, dust or pollen.
If you’re visiting someone who has a pet:
- take an antihistamine (as a tablet or nasal spray) an hour before you visit someone with a pet or come into close contact with a pet owner. Their clothes or car could carry the allergens, as well as their home.
- ask pet owners not to dust or vacuum just before you arrive. This will stop the allergens being stirred up into the air.
- talk to your GP or asthma nurse about using a regular nasal spray to help control allergic symptoms like a runny, itchy nose if you can’t avoid coming into contact with your animal trigger .
If you're thinking about getting a pet:
- consider whether you have any other allergies, since people who do are more likely to develop others.
- set up a trial run by spending time in a house where there’s a pet you’re hoping to get. Make sure you take your reliever inhaler with you.
- You could borrow an animal for a short time to see if you react to having it in your home. If no one you know has a pet similar to the one you want, another option is to call your local animal shelter and ask if you can volunteer and get some pet contact that way.
‘Hypoallergenic’ means something that’s ‘relatively unlikely to cause an allergic reaction’.
Some people believe that some pets - including certain breeds of cats and dogs - are ‘hypoallergenic’ and safe for people with asthma, but research shows there’s no such thing as a truly non-allergenic pet.
Scaly animals such as fish, frogs, turtles, lizards and snakes could make good pets for people with asthma because they don't shed dander (skin flakes) and are less likely to trigger an allergic reaction.
Bear in mind, though, that some people do find their asthma symptoms are triggered by fish. This could be because of allergens in their food, or to algae growing in their tank.
If you think your asthma symptoms are triggered by a reptile or amphibian, you can ask your GP if you need an allergy test.
If your children love animals but can't keep a household pet, here are some other ways they could feel connected to an animal:
- Sponsor an animal through a zoo, safari park or charity scheme.
- Get your child a substitute pet such as an interactive toy like a Furby or Little Live Pet, or an animal app. Virtual pets let children feel like they’re caring for an animal without the risk of triggering asthma symptoms.
Some people are allergic to farm animals like cows, sheep and chickens, as well as small animals that are often found in petting zoos, like guinea pigs and rabbits.
This could be a problem for children in particular, who might go on a school trip or to a party at a petting zoo or farm, but schools have to make sure that pupils with medical conditions like asthma are able to take part in school trips.
If your child is visiting a farm or petting zoo, make sure the adults who are going with them know about their asthma.
It’s essential for your child to take their reliever inhaler (usually blue) with them, and if the school has a spare inhaler for emergency use, an adult accompanying the trip should take that with them, too.
Your child might need to take an antihistamine beforehand. They should avoid contact with the animals as much as possible, and always wash their hands after touching an animal.
For more advice on pets and asthma
It can be really upsetting to find out that your family pet is making your asthma worse. If you'd like more support and information you can speak to an asthma nurse specialist on our Helpline on 0300 222 5800 or message them on WhatsApp on 07378 606 728 (9am - 5pm, Mon – Fri).
Last updated March 2020
Next review due March 2023