Allergies: For love of pets, and their owners
(CNN) — Love is about give and take — and sometimes a supply of nose sprays, inhalers, pills and tissues.
For those of us with pet allergies — that’s about 10% of the population, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology — entering a relationship with someone who already has a furry roommate can present a lot of challenges.
Can you manage if the pet stays out of the bedroom? If you do a lot of extra cleaning? Is this a deal-breaker for the relationship?
When you completely adore a pet and the person who’s attached to it, you might willingly suffer a stuffed nose. Or you both might cycle through many kinds of pets until you find one that lets you breathe.
The search for a healthy pet
Bethany and Ronald Johansen of Merchantville, New Jersey, married for 14 years, know this well.
Both love dogs and each grew up with a canine companion — but Ronald’s landed him in the hospital. His childhood asthmatic reactions were so bad that he once spent two months in an oxygen tent, he said. The family didn’t realize until later that his symptoms stemmed from their Irish setter, Kelly.
Bethany Johansen gave up her own dog of 13 years for the sake of her husband’s health when they married — a sacrifice upsetting to both of them (although the dog stayed with her parents and Bethany visited her every day during work lunch breaks). The couple lived without pets for several years, but both wanted to expand the family with animals.
“It’s been a journey with pets in this house, trying to find one that I can actually live with without it closing my throat,” Ronald Johansen, 32, said.
There was a hamster, a rabbit and a guinea pig — all no-goes for Ronald, although the hamster still stayed with the family (in a separate room). A hedgehog left sharp quills around the house that would stick to the children’s feet.
There were dogs, such as a Shih Tzu and a poodle, said to be “hypoallergenic” because they don’t shed as much as other canines. But different people are allergic to different dog proteins and, according to ACAAI, it doesn’t seem that any particular breed is generally best for allergic people.
Ronald Johansen hasn’t done well with any of them. Sometimes his throat itches within minutes of being around a dog.
“It has been frustrating,” his wife, 33, said. “He sees that it’s something that’s important to me. It’s important to him.”
Giving up the large poodle named Javier was particularly rough on the couple’s son Isaac, who would sit next to the dog in the backseat of the car and go to baseball games with him.
The family has found homes for other pets that haven’t worked out.
What allergists recommend
Allergists such as Dr. Clifford Bassett, director of Allergy & Asthma Care of New York and ACAAI fellow, understand the plight of the allergic pet-lover.
There are several lifestyle modifications that can provide some relief, he said. Bassett recommends getting a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate absorption) air filter, which can suck up irritating particles from dogs and cats, as well as a HEPA-type vacuum cleaner.
Carpeting collects pet dander, so linoleum, wood, tile are preferred on floors. Otherwise, frequent vacuuming, dusting and other cleaning can help make a room more allergy-friendly.
Designating the bedroom as pet-free can also help, Bassett said. Of course, that can be difficult for those of us who like to cuddle with our furry friends.
To treat symptoms, a doctor may prescribe antihistamines, prescription nasal sprays and eye drops, as well as inhalers for asthma. Depending on the person and the circumstances, managing oneself this way may be enough.
A longer-term solution is allergy shots, which can be effective in building up a tolerance to pets. They are particularly helpful when avoidance and medications are not successful, Bassett said. But the shots are an investment — you need to get them for at least three years, although improvement shows after about six months of weekly injections, according to ACAAI.
Ronald Johansen took allergy shots just to be able to have cats around, but said his dog allergy is so bad that he couldn’t tolerate that therapy.
How well people respond to this immunotherapy depends on how sensitive the person was initially, and how well they’re able to avoid environmental triggers, ACAAI said.
“I like to tell people, we’ll do the shots if avoidance is not appropriate or avoidance is not possible,” Bassett said.
Some people with allergies and asthma have such bad reactions that they should really avoid the offending animal altogether, experts say, particularly children who have severe asthma attacks.
The Johansens are still exploring the animal kingdom, but for now they have a combination that’s healthy for everyone. Their current cast of characters: Two cats, a chinchilla and a parrot, in addition to four human children.
Coping with cats
Jordon Goulder, 24, of Oakland, California, can also relate.
When she met her boyfriend Etai Rahmil, he had a cat, Dilla. She thought she would be too sick if she spent a lot of time at his house, and wasn’t sure the relationship would work out because of her cat allergy.
Fast forward four-and-a-half years: The couple lives in a small apartment in northern California with not just one, but two short-haired tabby cats.
Rahmil helps out by handling the litter box and taking care of a lot of the dusting and vacuuming that would be hard on Goulder. She feels better now that the couple lives together and without roommates.
Goulder’s symptoms — including wheezing, itchy skin, runny eyes and sneezing — depend on how much she plays with the cats and whether she lets them sleep on her pillow or under the blankets with her, which she often does.
Goulder takes two different allergy medicines in addition to two inhalers. Doctors usually tell her to give up the cats, but some are sympathetic to her love of animals.
“I would never recommend this lifestyle to another person, but I love my cats and I wouldn’t change my life for anything!” she wrote in her iReport.
Goulder also has asthma, which can be aggravated by colds and other environmental factors, but cats make it worse. Twice during the course of their relationship she has woken up in the middle of the night with an asthma attack, and had to go to the emergency room.
Rahmil often questions the situation — but Goulder has been firm.
“It’s kind of confusing for both of us. He approaches me in a worried way, like, ‘Is this the right option for us?’ ” Goulder said. “I’m pretty stubborn. I’m always going to say, ‘Yes, we’re keeping them.’ “
Holding out for a dog
As for the Johansens, they are considering adding a pig to their mix, but they haven’t given up hope of owning a dog again. They don’t want to make any promises to their children that they can’t keep, but they are planning to visit another breeder so Ronald can test out his symptoms around another dog.
“A dog is part of the family,” he said. “It’s something I’m just used to having and my wife is used to having. I guess that’s why we try so hard to get a dog. It’s part of us.”
CNN’s Daphne Sashin and Margaret Blaha contributed to this report.
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