There’s a great exhibit at the Harvard Semitic Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, depicting a life-size replica of an ancient Israeli dwelling. You can view the sleeping areas, the cooking spaces with authentic jugs from the period, the fabrics used throughout the home-and the large area devoted to keeping the household’s “pets”-mainly goats and sheep.
The animal pen, although distinct from the rest of the house, was definitely part of the living space. And the residents had to inevitably put up with odors, fur and noise, probably among many other things. But because they were exposed to animals all their lives, they may not have suffered from the modern scourge of allergies to animals.
Today most of us don’t keep farm animals in our homes, but many of us do share our home with cats and dogs. Kindness to animals is a mitzvah (a good deed) and many of us animal lovers are only too glad to fulfill it. But one big problem with keeping animals is allergies. According to experts, about one-third of people allergic to cats choose to live with their animal companions anyway.
In many cases, you can keep your pet and not suffer with debilitating allergies. There are things you can do with your house and with your pet to significantly reduce allergic triggers.
Are You Allergic?
The symptoms of pet allergies–especially to cats–may include itchy and watery eyes, runny and congested nose, sneezing, swollen sinuses, headaches, wheezing, coughing, and exacerbation of asthma and skin rashes and hives, according to CatWatch of the Cornell School of Veterinary Medicine. But before you do anything else, make sure you or your family members are really allergic to your pet. Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that only one-half to two-thirds of children believed to be allergic to cats or dogs actually tested positive for the allergy. You or your family can also be allergic to dust or pollen or some other substance.
With dogs and cats, the thing that causes your misery is not the animal’s fur or hair. It’s the dander (flakes of skin that are abundantly shed) that contain certain proteins that promote allergic symptoms in humans. “Cat dander is five times smaller than household dust particles, so it floats in the air much longer than dust before it settles,” says allergist Marianne Frieri, MD, PhD, director of allergy and immunology at Nassau University Medical Center in New York.
Although some dog breeds may be less allergenic, all breeds of cats–long-haired and short-haired–produce a lot of dander.
Make Your Pet Less Allergenic
There are a number of things you can do with your pet to try to reduce the allergy potential.
-Keep your dog or cat out of the bedroom and off your bed, as hard as that may seem. Blankets and bedding are great dander reservoirs. Also, keep don’t let your pet lie or sleep on your clothing or personal belongings. Instead, get your feline or canine his or her own blanket or nap pad. And wash these once a week.
-Give your pet regular baths–or have a non-allergenic person do it. Some research shows that bathing a cat at least once a week with lukewarm water may reduce allergies.
The Allergy-Free Home
You have to work at it, but there are steps you can take to reduce pet allergens around your home.
-Get rid of carpets and replace them with tile, wood, linoleum or scatter rugs (which you can wash). Carpet holds 100 times more allergen than non-porous flooring.
-Get an air purifier. Look for a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate) brand, and clean the filter often.
-Keep the air in your home as fresh as possible. Stagnant air allows allergens to accumulate.
Fortunately, you and your family members have various medical options to control allergy symptoms. Consult with a board-certified allergist. “Make sure you undergo skin or blood tests to see exactly what you’re allergic to,” says Dr. Frieri.
Depending on your symptoms, itchy eyes, nose congestion, wheezing or hives, your doctor may prescribe some form of antihistamine.
For those with more severe or widespread symptoms, allergy shots-known as immunotherapy-work very well for allergic asthma and other allergy conditions. After several years of maintenance shots, you may be able to discontinue them.
If our ancient ancestors did have allergies to their animals, they didn’t have much choice in treating their allergic reactions . They needed the animals and had to endure whatever discomfort they experienced. But today there is a lot you can do to control your environment and medically treat your allergies to animals-which enables you to keep your pets.
By the way, if you’re ever near Harvard University, stop in and see the ancient Israeli dwelling at the Semitic Museum. It’s a fascinating exhibit.
This article originally appeared in Jewish Family & Life!