Summer is hay fever season and it must be awful for lovers of the outdoors to be constantly bunged up! However, we think it is even worse for animal lovers who are also allergic to animal fur. Every cuddle with a friendly dog could set you off! If you are determined to have a dog regardless of your allergies, you may be looking for a ‘hypoallergenic’ dog. So what’s the best dog breed for people with allergies?
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We’ve discussed dog hair before in our blog about grooming. To summarise, hair and fur are the same thing; tubular keratin (a protein) strands that grow from a living hair bulb. Human hair constantly grows, but most dogs’ hair reaches a certain length then stops growing. The hair dies but remains in the skin until a new living hair pushes it out from below. This is when hair is shed. A few breeds, like poodles, have hair that is constantly growing, like human hair. These breeds require haircuts more often and tend to shed less.
The two main types of hair are primary (guard) hairs that are longer and firmer, and secondary (downy) hairs that are finer and designed to trap heat. The secondary hairs are sometimes known as the undercoat. All dogs carry both types of hair. But some carry mainly primary hairs and are known as ‘single-coated’ dogs. While others have a greater proportion of secondary hairs and are known as ‘double-coated’ dogs. Double-coated dogs are often breeds originating from colder climates, where the thick undercoat helps trap air to keep them warm; such as Huskies and Alaskan malamutes.
Single-coated breeds, such as terriers, greyhounds and chihuahuas, are often marketed as ‘hypoallergenic’, as they do not shed as often as double-coated breeds. However, as you will see, this label is misleading.
Allergies to Pet Hair
An allergy is the body’s immune system responding to something it doesn’t like (an allergen) by causing inflammation. When an allergen enters the body, antibodies bind to it and present it to immune cells. These cells release inflammatory chemicals, such as histamine, which results in local inflammation. In the nose, allergic reactions cause sneezing, coughing, itchiness, a runny nose, difficulties breathing and asthma attacks.
Animal fur itself doesn’t usually cause an allergic reaction – instead it’s stuff produced by the animal trapped on the hair, such as dead skin, saliva, urine and faeces (gross, we know!). Animal fur can also trap other substances that cause allergies, such as dust, pollen and dust mite faeces. Regardless of the cause, if the hair carrying allergens gets near your nose, it can cause an allergic reaction – a susceptible person will get an allergic reaction when coming into contact with animal fur.
Best Breeds for Allergy Sufferers?
So being allergic to a dog’s fur (or the substances in it) can cause an allergic reaction – are there any dogs that are hypoallergenic and don’t cause them?
Unfortunately, no. Any dog can trap allergens in their fur and cause an allergic reaction. ‘Hypoallergenic’ dogs are often marketed as such because they shed less hair than other dogs. Less shed hair means less hair around to trigger an allergic reaction. For some people, this may be enough – many people find certain breeds do not set off their allergies as much as others. But no dog is truly hypoallergenic because all dogs shed. One scientific study even compared the amount of allergy-causing dust in homes with ‘hypoallergenic’ and non-hypoallergenic dogs, and found there was no difference. Even hairless breeds are known to cause allergies!
There will be some minor differences between individual dogs – houses with more dogs tend to cause more allergic reactions, and dogs that spend a lot of time indoors are likely to trap more dust than those remaining outdoors.
As such, we cannot directly recommend a breed suitable for allergy sufferers. In future, studies may show that certain breeds do tend to cause less allergic reactions than others, but until then it may be a case of trial and error in finding the right dog for you.
Perhaps potential dog owners are feeling a little disheartened right now, but do not worry. We’d like to finish this article off with some recommendations to reduce the chance of reacting to your dog’s fur. As always, these are just recommendations and may not work with all pets, and all dogs have the potential to cause allergic reactions. Seek your doctor’s advice if you require specific treatment.
Avoidance is obviously the best way to avoid suffering an allergic reaction – no dog means no allergens in the fur! If you are still set on a dog however, try and have ‘dog-free’ zones in the house. Your bedroom is important to keep dog hair-free as you will likely spend a lot of time in there. In an ideal world, keep your dog outside as much as possible, where hair is less likely to settle. Any carpeted areas or areas with lots of soft furnishings should also be avoided by your dog, as these can easily trap fur.
Try and avoid excessive contact with your dog too. Don’t hug them and definitely no kissing, as this can bring your nose right into the fur. Always wash your hands after contact with your dog. Your clothes will trap allergens, so change and wash your clothes regularly.
If you are having visitors who have a dog, ask that the dog stays outside. Your visitors will likely be carrying fur on their clothes as well, so meeting outside can help reduce spread to your nose.
Cleaning is a must with allergy sufferers. Vacuum the house regularly, wash all soft bedding, dog bedding, carpets and cushions often on a hot wash. Ideally, remove as much of it as possible (stick to hardwood floors instead of carpet). Dust the house regularly and remove clutter that could allow dust to settle into cracks too. However, while this kind of cleaning is important to remove excess fur from the environment, it also kicks it up into the air and could set your allergies off – wear a dust mask when you are cleaning (we’re sure you’re all used to mask-wearing by now…). If you are visiting a friend with pets, ask them to not hoover directly before you visit for the same reason!
Your dog himself will need regular cleaning too. Once a week is good to remove allergens from their fur, but no more or you could start to dry their skin out. Regularly brushing them to remove the loose hair is important too. Again, these activities will likely get you sneezing, so consider asking a non-allergic friend or even a professional groomer to do it for you.
Finally, ventilation is also important (we’re noticing some similarities between allergen avoidance and the virus that shall not be named…) to remove particles from the air. Keep windows and doors open to let air in, keep fans and air cons on, and consider a decent air purifier. However, again remember that these changes can result in allergens being blown into the air, so regular cleaning is also critical. You can reduce particles being blown into a room by the air con by covering the vent with a cloth.
When allergens start to become a real problem, you really should visit your pharmacist or GP. They may prescribe drugs to prevent flare-ups. Anti-allergy medication taken an hour before coming into contact with a dog can be really useful to stop reactions.
One treatment that may be offered for severe allergies is desensitisation therapy, where small amounts of allergens are given in drops, tablets or injections to allow your body to build a tolerance to it, sort of like how vaccinations work but in reverse.
Try Before You Buy
Finally, consider having trials or fostering a dog before you decide to keep them. Be open with the rescue or breeder you are purchasing your dog from, and ask to take them home for a few days. This will allow you to see if this particular dog sets you sneezing or if you’ve found the perfect ‘hypoallergenic’ pet and can cuddle them all night long.
Everyone deserves some puppy love, and we’d hate for potentially great owners to not get a dog because of their allergies. We are sorry we cannot recommend a specific breed for you, but we hope that the rest of our advice might make owning a dog manageable with allergies.