Animals and pets

Furry and feathery animals are a common trigger of asthma symptoms.

Animals are a common trigger of asthma symptoms. You might be allergic to just one animal or more than one. Often it's cats, dogs or horses - but other animals such as rabbits, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs and gerbils can also make asthma symptoms worse. For some people, birds may also trigger asthma symptoms.

Pet allergies can develop at any stage of life. This means that even if you had a dog when you were younger and did not react to it, you could be allergic to dogs now. Sometimes, even if you have been around an animal for some time without developing allergies, it's possible to become allergic years later.

Why do animals cause asthma symptoms?

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

The allergens (which cause the allergic reaction in some people) are actually proteins found in the animal's flakes of skin (dander) - and are harmless for most people.

In people who are sensitive to these proteins, touching or inhaling animal allergens causes the 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; scratchy 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.

How do you know if animals are your trigger?

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.

For people who are highly allergic to animals, this can cause breathing problems - coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath - soon after contact with the animal. Sometimes highly allergic people also get a rash on the face, neck and upper chest.

An easy way to tell if you are allergic to an animal is to see if your asthma symptoms get better after a period of time away from it (eg on holiday). Of course, this isn't always possible. As Sonia Munde, our Head of Helpline advises: "Moving your pet to a different room, putting it outside, or re-homing it won't get rid of all the allergens straight away - and you may still have symptoms for some time."

The best way to confirm you have an animal allergy is by getting your doctor to refer you for a skin prick test and/or blood test to confirm whether or not you're allergic to animals.

How do I cut my risk of reacting to animals?

1. If you don't keep pets...

... but you know you'll be coming into contact with an animal that triggers your asthma, take an antihistamine or nasal spray beforehand, or wear a mask or scarf to cover your nose and mouth. If you regularly come into contact with animals and cannot avoid it, you may need to talk to your GP or asthma nurse about using a regular nasal spray to help control allergic nose symptoms.

2. If you live with pets

If you decide to carry on living with pets when you have allergic asthma, here are some things you can do to cut your risk of symptoms:

  • Try to keep pets out of your bedroom and, where possible, living area.
  • Regular grooming and bathing of cats and dogs can help. You can ask your vet for advice on how to do this properly.
  • If your pet lives in a cage, it may be a good idea to get someone else to clean it out. Ideally it would be better to keep them in their cage as much as possible and limit where they go in the house.
  • You could try using air filters and an efficient vacuum cleaner. These might be helpful for people who have pet allergies, however the evidence on the benefit of these remains unclear.

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

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

If you're confident that you (or anyone else who shares your home) doesn't have pet allergies, it's okay to have a pet if you have asthma. If you or someone you live with starts having asthma symptoms - and you suspect that this is being caused by your pet or a certain animal - have an asthma review with your GP or asthma nurse as soon as possible. Your inhalers could be adjusted or you may need to have another medicine added on to make sure your asthma is as well controlled as possible.

4. If you're considering which pet is less likely to cause an allergic reaction

First, consider whether you already have any other type of allergies, since people who do are more likely to develop others. It's a good idea to set up a trial run by spending some time in the home of a friend or family member who already has a pet you are hoping to get.

You could even ask whether you can borrow the animal to stay in your own home for a short time to see if you react to it, and if you have any problems with dander that's left around your house.

If no one in your immediate circle of contacts has a pet similar to the one you want, another option would be to call your local animal shelter and ask if you can volunteer and get some pet contact that way.

Hypoallergenic pets

Some people believe that ‘hypoallergenic’ pets including cats and dogs are safe for people with asthma . While it’s true that some animals produce many more allergens than others, all animals produce dander, urine and saliva that can also trigger asthma symptoms. This means that they can’t be classed as truly hypoallergenic.

A 2011 research study compared dust samples from homes with dog breeds reported to be hypoallergenic and those of homes with other dogs. The levels of dog allergen in homes with 'hypoallergenic' dogs did not differ from the levels in homes with other breeds.

Birds

When most people think about pets triggering asthma symptoms, they think of cats and dogs. However, anyone with asthma, allergies, or any respiratory problem can also experience breathing problems from bird feathers, feather dust and bird dander. 

Please be aware that birds can cause other respiratory conditions as well, so if you do spend a lot of time around birds in your working or home life and experience on-going symptoms, please speak to your doctor for more advice.

Reptiles and amphibians

Scaly animals such as fish, frogs, turtles, lizards and snakes could be a better option as pets because they don't have fur and are less allergenic.

However, if you find that your asthma is affected by reptiles and amphibians, you can ask your GP for an allergy test. Sometimes, you could 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.

Also, as with all pets, there could be 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. You can also find out more here.

Other ideas

If your children love animals but can't keep a household pet, one option is to sponsor an animal. It's simple and easy, and you can still maintain an attachment to a pet while making a difference!

You can also get your child a handheld digital pet like the 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

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.

Last updated July 2016

Next review due July 2019