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Living with pet allergies.


Afriend of mine brought her cat, Fluffy, to my animal hospital to be put to sleep. In tears, she explained that her allergist had advised eliminating Fluffy as a way of combating her son's allergies. Fluffy, 15, had been 12-year-old Timmy's companion for as long as the boy could remember. Because my friend was suffering from guilt and uncertainty, I agreed to keep Fluffy at the hospital until we could make an appropriate decision. Meanwhile, I did some research into the pet-allergy problem.

I found a study by Dr. Edward Baker, a veterinarian Baker, a veterinarian who had sent questionnaires to 200 allergists. He found that twice as many allergists allow pets in the home as recommend their elimination. Of those allergists who recommended that the pet be removed, 50 percent thought that patients did not follow their instructions, and 53 percent thought that patients suffered guilt feelings and depression following the forced loss of their pets. In fact, many who gave up their pets actually suffered aggravation of their allergies, perhaps caused by psychological trauma. Although most allergists gave tests to determine which species their patients were allergic to, few actually recommended hyposensitization (allergy shots) to animal danders as therapy. (Animal danders are the tiny particles from feathers, skin, or hair that cause allergies.)

I also found that people are more often allergic to cats than to dogs. In one scientific study of 160 children with suspected allergies, testing revealed that about 20 percent were allergic to dogs and 30 percent to cats. A substance in cat saliva is the major agent causing allergic reactions. Cats are more likely than dogs to be in the house and more likely than dogs to be in the bedroom.

In addition, I found that people with allergies are usually allergic to many things and that allergies tend to run in families. Dr. Fred Bjorksten, in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, recommends that infants with a family history of allergies be kept from contact with pets. This shielding lessens their chances of developing allergies later on.

Did all this mean Fluffy had to go? I recommended the following steps to my friend:

(1) See Timmy's physician. If thorough allergy testing reveals a true allergy to cats, discuss hyposensitization shots.

(2) Comb, brush (avoid stiff brushes that will irritate the skin), and wipe Fluffy daily with a wet towel to remove saliva and loose hairs. In addition:

--Shampoo Fluffy every two weeks with a good liquid pet shampoo and rinse him well.

--Feed Fluffy a good brand of cat food that includes natural fat or vegetable oil to lessen dryness of the skin.

--If needed, give him one tablespoon of vegetable oil twice a week.

--Because allergic people are usually more sensitive than others to odors, neuter Fluffy to stop tomcat odor.

--Use unperfumed, plain clay litter that has little dust. Make sure litter is clean; change litter when Timmy is at school, and pour it slowly to reduce dust.

--Avoid using insecticides or perfumed products on Fluffy.

(3) Most people with allergies have problems with dust, pollen, grasses, etc., so undertake an all-out effort to lessen the effects of these allergic substances. This effort may include:

--investing in an industrial-size air purifier for the home;

--encouraging family members to stop smoking;

--vacuuming the home when Timmy is at school;

--installing an air conditioner and a humidifier;

--buying nonallergenic, washable covers for mattresses, box springs, and pillows;

--using non-allergenic, polyester-filled pillows and comforters;

--avoiding feathers and down.

--When practical, avoid excessive automobile exhaust and areas being sprayed with insecticides, and keep car windows closed.

(4) Allergic persons must work especially hard at handling stress and emotional upsets, which aggravate the allergic state.

Eliminating a beloved pet because of one family member's allergies can be a source of guilt and strife with other family members. Timmy's ten-year-old sister, Angela, even said she'd rather see Timmy go than Fluffy! As much as I love cats, I now recommend dogs rather than cats for households with highly allergic members. I also recommend that infants in allergic families be sheltered not only from pets but also from dust and other highly allergic agents. (Fabric toys and stuffed animals are dust collectors.) An allergic person may want to be tested for reactions to animal danders and feathers before selecting a pet. Children allergic to dogs or cats can often have a bird or a reptile for a pet.

Allergic children often get better with age. And in time, persons allergic to pets often build up a tolerance to their own pets so that their allergic symptoms become less of a problem, although exposure to other animals may trigger the old reactions. In Timmy's and in most other cases, Fluffy can stay.

Questions for the Vet

Dear Dr. Whiteley,

My six-year-old fox terrier, Fetcher, has suffered terribly each summer from red, itchy skin on his stomach and under his legs, especially. It has progressed until he suffers nearly year round. I was taking him for cortisone shots nearly every three weeks until I changed vets. My new veterinarian performed allergy tests and said Fetcher is allergic to St. Augustine grass, Bermuda grass, wool, and pecan trees. I was tremendously upset and surprised. Is this normal? Should I pay for expensive shots to desensitize him to some of these things? I am beginning to think it would be cheaper to send him on a one-way trip out of Mississippi.

Mrs. J.P. Boone

Clarksdale, Mississippi

Dear Mrs. Boone,

Yes, it is normal for allergic animals and people to be allergic to many items rather than just one, which makes treatment difficult. Redness and itching on nonhaired areas of the body are typical of allergic contact dermatitis. Other items that cause the described signs may include dyes, rubber, vinyl, carpet (wool and nylon), flea collars, shampoos, household cleaning agents, plants, and topical medications. Avoidance and desensitization therapy are good recommendations.


Dear Dr. Whiteley,

My cocker spaniel scratches himself raw around his rump and tail. My vet says it's an allergy to fleas, but I have used flea sprays and baths and dips on him religiously. I can't believe that one or two fleas can cause such a reaction as this. What else could it be?

Pete Toussard

Baker, Florida

Dear Pete,

Flea-allergy dermatitis is the most common allergic disease seen in dogs and cats. Approximately 40 percent of the dog population suffers from it. The signs you describe are typical of flea allergy, and even one flea can cause an intense allergic reaction to flea saliva. Scientific studies reveal that dogs intermittently exposed to fleas have a much higher incidence of flea allergy than dogs continuously exposed to fleas. Intensive flea control is the recommended therapy. Flea control always includes the elimination of fleas in the house, garage, and yard, as well as on the animal.


Dear Dr. Whiteley,

I am in the ninth grade and have wanted to become a vet for many years. I would like to know which colleges would be best for me and what classes I would have to take in high school to get there. Thank you for your help.

Aleta Gunnell

Rock Hill, South Carolina

Dear Aleta,

It is wonderful that you have a career goal in mind at such an early age. Veterinary training emphasizes the sciences. I recommend that you take as much science and math as possible in high school. Most veterinarians spend more time with people than animals, so I believe that speech and English classes are also important. Pre-veterinary medicine is usually a three- or four-year curriculum that can be taken at one of your state universities. Veterinary school is four years; the closest schools to you are the University of Georgia at Athens, North Carolina State University at Raleigh, and Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Virginia. Your state will have a contract with out-of-state veterinary schools, but admission will be competitive. Good grades are important.

I recommend that you work at a veterinary clinic as a paid employee or as a volunteer to help you decide if veterinary medicine is truly for you. Veterinary technology might also be a consideration. People with this degree act as veterinarians' assistants. Tri-County Technical College in Pendleton, South Carolina, offers a two-year associate degree in veterinary technology.


Photo: Many allergists recommend not giving Fluffy away before trying a number of allergen-reducing alternatives.
COPYRIGHT 1987 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Author:Whiteley, H. Ellen
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Oct 1, 1987
Previous Article:Me and my girl.
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