Animals, pets and asthma

Pets can often trigger asthma symptoms. Here’s why − and what you can do about it

Animals are a common trigger of asthma symptoms. You might be allergic to just one animal or more than one. Animals that can make asthma symptoms worse include:

  • Cats
  • Dogs
  • Horses
  • Rabbits
  • Mice
  • Hamsters
  • Guinea pigs
  • Gerbils
  • Birds

Pet allergies can develop at any stage of life. Even if you had a dog when you were younger and didn’t react to it, you could be allergic to dogs now.

Why do animals cause asthma symptoms?

“If animals are a trigger for your asthma you probably have what’s known as ‘allergic asthma’,” says Dr Samantha Walker, Asthma UK’s Director of Research and Policy.

A lot of people think it's animal fur or hair that causes the problem, but this isn't the case. If pets are an asthma trigger for you, you’re usually 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’. 

If you’re sensitive to these proteins, touching or breathing them in causes your immune system to overreact and release a chemical called histamine, leading to an allergic reaction. Symptoms can include red, itchy and watery eyes and nose; sneezing; coughing; tickly or sore throat; itchy skin; and most serious of all, difficulty breathing.

For many people with asthma, this release of histamine can make asthma symptoms worse.

It’s also possible to be allergic to something connected with the pet − for example, the cage or tank they’re kept in, the food they eat, the antibacterial hand gel you use after touching them, or the cleaning products you use.

How do you know if animals trigger your asthma?

  • Spot telltale symptoms
    If you or your child is slightly allergic to animals, your allergy symptoms (itching, redness, sneezing, coughing) may not appear until after several days of contact with the animal.
    If you're highly allergic to animals, it can cause severe breathing problems − coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath − soon after contact with the animal. Sometimes highly allergic people also get a rash on their face, neck and upper chest.
  • See if you feel better after time away from your animal
    Do your asthma symptoms get better after some time away from your pet – for example, if you go on holiday? “Remember that moving your pet to a different room or outside won’t prevent asthma symptoms because allergens can stay in your carpets and furniture and clothes,” says asthma nurse specialist Caroline. “That’s why even if you re-home your pet, you may still have symptoms for some time.”
  • Get an allergy skin prick test from your GP or asthma nurse
    The only way to confirm if you have an animal allergy is by getting your doctor to refer you for a skin prick test or blood test. “We don’t recommend buying an allergy test as they’re not always reliable,” says Caroline. 

How to cut your risk of animals triggering your asthma

“The most important thing to do is take your preventer medicines as prescribed,” says Caroline. “This soothes the inflammation in your sensitive airways so that if you do come into contact with any kind of asthma trigger, your airways are less likely to react to them.”

You can also try these tips and ideas.

1. If you don’t have 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, as their clothes or car could carry the allergens. Consider wearing a mask or scarf to cover your nose and mouth.
  • Although it's great if friends with pets dust or vacuum before you visit, ask them not to do it immediately before you arrive to avoid 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 just can’t avoid coming into contact with your animal trigger.

2. If you have a pet 

“If you’re confident that you (or anyone else who lives with you) doesn’t have an allergy to animals, it’s OK to have a pet if you have asthma,” says Caroline. But if you or someone you live with get or start getting asthma symptoms that you think are caused by your pet, here’s what to do.

  • See your GP or asthma nurse as soon as possible. Tell them you think they might be caused by your pet or an animal. They could update your asthma treatment, and your written asthma action plan, to make sure your asthma is as well managed as possible.
  • Try to keep pets out of your bedroom and, where possible, out of your living area.
  • Groom and bathe your dogs and cats regularly. You can ask your vet for advice on how to do this properly.
  • If your pet lives in a cage, ask someone else to clean it out. Ideally it is better to keep them in their cage as much as possible and restrict where they go in the house.
  • Think about trying an air filter and an efficient vacuum cleaner. Some people find them helpful to manage pet allergies, although the evidence on the benefit of these remains unclear. “Most studies suggest they do improve symptoms if you use them alongside proven steps to manage asthma well,” says AUK’s in-house GP Dr Andy Whittamore. “But the truth is, more research is needed.”

3. If you’re thinking about re-homing your pet

If you’re thinking about re-homing your pet because of your allergy, it’s important to consider getting an allergy test first because you may be reacting to something else such as dust or pollen.

4. If you’re thinking of 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.
  • You could ‘borrow’ an animal for a short time to see if you react to having dander in your home. Or 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 pets and asthma

‘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. “While it’s true that some animals produce many more allergens than others, all animals produce dander, plus urine and saliva that can also trigger asthma symptoms,” says Dr Whittamore. “Research shows that no animals can be classed as truly hypoallergenic.”

One study compared dust samples from homes with dog breeds reported to be hypoallergenic with dust samples from homes with other dogs. The levels of dog allergen in homes with ‘hypoallergenic’ dogs was no different from the levels in homes with other breeds. 

Birds and asthma

Anyone with asthma, allergies, or any respiratory problem can also experience breathing problems trigered by bird feathers, feather dust and bird dander. 

Birds can cause other respiratory conditions as well, so if you do spend time around birds in your working or home life and you experience on-going symptoms, it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor for advice.

Reptiles and amphibians, and asthma

Scaly animals such as fish, frogs, turtles, lizards and snakes could be a better option as pets because they don’t shed dander (skin flakes) and are less likely to trigger an allergic reaction.

However, if you suspect that your asthma is affected by reptiles or amphibians, you can ask your GP for an allergy test.

As with all pets, there are other health risks to think about with reptiles and amphibians. This includes salmonella infection, especially in children with a weakened immune system. Talk to your local pet shop or a vet. 

Alternative pet ideas if you have asthma

If you or your children love animals but can’t keep a household pet, here are some things you could try:

  • Sponsor an animal through a zoo, safari park or charity scheme.
  • Get your child a handheld digital pet like a Tamagotchi or the various pets that live in the mobile app world. Virtual pets let children feel like they are responsible for a pet’s cleaning and feeding routines, without worrying about allergic symptoms.

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, 9am-5pm Mon-Fri. Or you can WhatsApp them on 07378 606 728

 

Last updated March 2019

Next review due March 2022