Discovering that anyone in the home — but particularly one of the kids — is allergic to the family pet can be upsetting. Our pets are members of our family, so discovering that their mere presence is negatively impacting the health or physical comfort of your child creates a stressful situation. But if it happens, and provided the allergy isn’t severe, there are steps you can take to ease your child’s symptoms without resorting to rehoming the animal.
If you have young kids and you’re still deciding whether to bring a new pet home — and you have a strong history of allergies in your family — you may want to wait until they’re old enough to confirm whether they have a pet allergy themselves. If an animal allergy is suspected, it’s a good idea to expose the child to the pet a few times to watch for symptoms before committing to an adoption. Keep in mind, though, that it can take months of exposure before allergy symptoms appear.
If you already have a pet that is causing your child to sneeze and wheeze, there are some things you can do to help manage the situation.
Make sure the animal really is the problem
Pet allergy symptoms are caused by proteins found in the animal’s skin cells (dander), saliva, or urine. They can include sneezing; coughing; a runny nose; itchy, red, or watery eyes; nasal congestion; itchy nose, roof of mouth, or throat; postnasal drip; facial pressure and pain; and swollen, blue-coloured skin under the eyes. According to The Mayo Clinic, a child might also frequently rub their nose in an upward motion. But pets are sometimes blamed for causing an allergic reaction in kids when the offending allergen is something else entirely.
If your child is displaying allergy symptoms, it’s best to first consult with their paediatrician or allergist to have them tested to confirm what is causing the reaction. As the American Academy of Pediatrics says:
Occasionally, symptoms that seem to be caused by an animal may be, in fact, due to other allergies, such as to pollen or mould. What happens is that Fido and Felix explore outdoors, then come back into the house with a load of pollen granules and mould spores in their coats. Every time the hay fever sufferer pats the pets, he stirs up an invisible cloud of allergens that triggers symptoms.
Create an “allergy-free” zone
The child’s bedroom is the most important room to keep as clean and clear of allergens as possible, so start by keeping that room off-limits to the pet. You may also consider dust mite covers for their bedding, as dust mites are another common allergy trigger.
Beyond the bedroom, the fewer rooms you can limit the pet’s access to, the better. Maybe you can gate off the upstairs of the house, particularly if the floors on the main level have hard surfaces and the bedroom floors are carpeted. Pet dander sticks more to surfaces like carpet, drapes, curtains, and upholstered furniture than it does to hard surfaces like wood, tile, or laminate. As Beth Orenstein writes for Everyday Health:
Plus, the latter are easier to clean. For this reason, you also shouldn’t let your allergic child sleep with stuffed animals, Dr. [Mervat] Nassef, [a pediatric allergist and immunologist at NewYork-Presbyterian in New York City], adds. If you must have carpet in your child’s bedroom or elsewhere in your home, select a low-pile one and have it steam-cleaned regularly.
Even doing all of this will not fully prevent the spread of allergens throughout the home — air currents from forced-air heating and air conditioning systems will push allergens from room to room. However, you may be able to outfit them with an air purifying system or HEPA filters.
Become a total clean freak
If your child (or someone else in your home) is allergic to a pet, you will need to clean, clean, clean — and then clean some more. Pet dander is notorious for its ability to linger on any number of surfaces, so while frequent vacuuming of the floors might be obvious, you’ll also want to make sure you’re keeping walls, furniture, blinds, ceiling fans, and curtains clean. Your pet’s bed and toys should also be washed regularly.
Clean your kid, too. If your child has physical contact with the pet, such as by petting or being licked by the animal, encourage them to immediately wash their hands or any area that came into contact with the pet with soap and water. Teach them to avoid touching their eyes after interacting with the animal, and if they’ve been playing with it (preferably outside!), have them change their clothes. Showering before bed can also help reduce the amount of allergens a child brings into their bedroom at night.
Talk to your vet about food and bathing
Bathing your pet regularly can help reduce the amount of allergens it sheds. However, you don’t want to overdo it and cause its skin to dry out and shed even more dander. Aim for a weekly bath, and consult with your veterinarian about the best shampoo to use on your specific pet. Regular brushing will also remove dander — but do this outside so you don’t send the dander into the indoor air.
Your vet may also have suggestions for changes you can make to the animal’s diet that may help its skin retain moisture and reduce shedding. A diet with a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can support healthier skin.
Treatment or (gulp) removal
If you’ve tried all of the above and it simply hasn’t been enough to manage your child’s symptoms, you can talk to their allergist about whether there are any over-the-counter or prescription treatment options available.
Many families will consider rehoming a pet as a last resort. If your child’s allergies cannot be managed and doing so becomes necessary, The Humane Society has tips for finding it a new home.