All about dog hair: NOT the cause of allergies

By Tracie Korol

Contrary to myth and legend, you are not allergic to your dog’s hair. Dog hair itself is not an allergen. Mostly likely you are allergic to what’s under it or on it. Dander or old skin scales (similar to, only much smaller than, dandruff on the human scalp) constantly sluffs off your dog and into your environment clinging to furniture, draperies and wall coverings. It’s enough to totally creep you out if you think about it in too much detail.

Dander occurs naturally as the epidermis, or the outer layer of skin, renews itself. The epidermis of dogs is quite thin; it is made up of many layers of cells that are constantly pushing upward to replace the cells above. As this process takes place about every 21 days, the outer cells die and flake off into the environment as dander. It has been found, incidentally, that the epidermal turnover is more rapid in breeds that are groomed frequently and especially in breeds that are prone to various forms of dry and oily seborrhea (Cocker and Springer Spaniels, West Highland White Terriers, Irish Setters, to name a few). Dander, being somewhat sticky, attracts dust and pollen thus becoming an allergen triple threat.

People with dog allergies, my son included, have supersensitive immune systems that react to harmless proteins (the allergens) in the dog’s dander, saliva or urine. These proteins can cause nasal congestion, sneezing, itchy and watery eyes, skin rashes, headaches, fatigue, coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing, and serious asthma attacks. This can happen within 5 to 30 minutes or occur much later as a delayed reaction. My son maintained a dog-free bedroom but once he appeared in a common area of the house would trumpet his arrival with a series of sneezes. Twenty-two in a row was his personal best.  His symptoms appeared in his teens, only after I built my kennel and the dander-density rose to extraordinary levels. Aah, the irony.

If you are unsure you (or your child) is allergic to dogs, yet want to have a dog, you can always go to a doctor and be tested. A cheaper method would be to visit the home of friend who has breed you’d like to have and hang around as long as you can. Hug and kiss the dog, rub your nose into its fur, and breath the air in the room where he lives. Let the dog lick your bare skin, especially on your neck (if you are brave) and inside your arms where the skin is more sensitive. You want to test your allergic reaction both to the dander and saliva. This will help you to evaluate your current allergic reaction to that particular breed. Reactions may be delayed, sometimes up to two or three years so don’t plan on making a decision that day.

That’s what happened in our family. My son lived happily and sneeze-free for years with Dave. Eighteen months into my new career of kenneling, my here-to-fore amazingly healthy child, developed allergies not only to dogs, but also to field grass and dust mites.  To combat his symptoms we established dog-free zones and installed HEPA filters, pulled up the carpets and tried to remember to bush-hog the 8 acres of field surrounding the house before the pollen got really juicy. Irony, once again.

I purchased leather furniture and wiped it down daily. We established dog-free reserved seating — he had his chair and the dogs and I had ours.  We vacuumed frequently using a HEPA-filter vacuum, aired the house when the pollen count was low and washed dog bedding and soft toys frequently. My car was the designated dog car.

And there was always Claritin. It worked great when I could convince my son to take it. But he said it made him feel like he was walking under water and, more importantly, he felt it a moral indignation to have to take medicine in order to live in his own house. Until recently he lived dog and allergy free but as an animal lover, he couldn’t not have a dog.  Bing, a pit bull/boxer, joined the family, and my son has resumed snuffling, but not as vigorously. It’s an inconvenience he endures but one of the smaller things you put up with for love.

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