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Pet AllergiesWhen Pets Make You Sick

As a Teenager Jonathon lived with Sphinx, his family’s much-loved black cat, who spend most of its time indoors and slept in his bedroom. He showed no symptoms of cat allergy. Then he left home for university and at some point became severely allergic to cats, despite having grown up with one. now 30 years later he only has to enter a room where a cat has been and within minutes his eyes and nose are streaming, he is sneezing uncontrollably, his chest tightens up and he will be wheezing within the hour.

This scenario is very common, says allergy specialist Dr Andrew Baker, of Waitemata Allergy Clinic in Auckland.

“Some people can be desensitised by their own pet just by living with the animal constantly, so they don’t react. But when they move away to university, or into their own home, they react to the cat or dog for the fist time.”

The Allergens

Allergic individuals react to the proteins in the dander (dead skin), saliva or sebum secreted by an animal’s hair follicles to protect fur and skin. The microscopic proteins become airborne and are inhaled as tiny particles that can cause allergic symptoms. Cats and dogs cause the most problems, followed by horses, rabbits, guinea pigs and cows.

Dr Baker says pet allergies can be difficult to diagnose because some people who think they are allergic to their cat or dog are actually allergic to dust mites. In many cases they may be allergic to both an animal and dust mites.

“Cats and dogs carry a lot of dust mites on them and sometimes people are reacting to the dust on the cat or dog. It would be less common for someone to just react to a cat or dog, he says.

“It’s important to get properly tested and diagnosed. Allergy tests are helpful but do not completely prove a diagnosis. Instead allergists rely on a combination of skin prick or blood tests and a comprehensive case history of the patient’s clinical symptoms and whether they occur year round or intermittently, to pinpoint the cause.”

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Issue: Autumn 2014