Have you ever woken up, wheezing, snotty, or covered in hives? Do you love your dog more than you love the ability to breathe normally? You’re not alone. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, about three in 10 people who have allergies are allergic to household pets like cats and dogs. That's why so many animal lovers set their sights on hypoallergenic breeds that may make them feel a little less like they're going to die on a daily basis. But the truth behind hypoallergenic pets is a little more complicated.
It’s time to bust the myth — there’s technically no such thing as a truly hypoallergenic dog or cat breed. That said, some people who have pet allergies may find certain breeds more tolerable to be around than others.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the myth of the hypoallergenic pet all started with the misunderstanding that pet allergies are caused by fur. As a result, the belief was that if a particular dog or cat breed doesn’t shed, they’re hypoallergenic — and therefore safe for people who have pet allergies.
However, pet allergies are not caused by pet fur — they’re caused by a protein found in the saliva and urine of dogs and cats. This protein often sticks to the dander, or the dried flakes of your pet’s skin that attach to your pet’s fur, and can be found not just on your pet, but on your clothing and around your house. Exposure to this dander can trigger allergy symptoms like wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath in people with pet allergies.
That said, it’s believed that with pets who don’t shed, or those who shed minimally, there’s less dander floating around — which means you may be less likely to experience allergy symptoms around breeds that are touted as hypoallergenic.
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Even if you’re allergic, that doesn’t necessarily mean pets are completely off-limits.
“The broad wisdom is that there are less allergenic dogs and cats,” explains Leanne Lilly, DVM, behavioral medicine resident at the Ohio State University in Columbus. “For something to truly be hypoallergenic, the immune system wouldn’t react at all under any circumstances. And all dogs and cats do have some degree of dander and some degree of fur that’s not human, so there is the potential for your immune system to react to it.”
So which breeds are the best bet? While specific dog and cat breeds, like Poodles or Balinese, are hyped as hypoallergenic, the truth is, even hairless breeds can cause an allergic reaction in people with pet allergies.
That's why the best breed for you all depends on your individual case, and what you’re specifically allergic to. “The first step is to talk with your allergist; then based on what they say, talk about what types of dogs and dog or cat breeds may be a good fit for you,” says Dr. Lilly.
A good rule of thumb? Avoid pets with skin problems, which can flake off when they scratch, and trigger an allergy attack, explains Lilly. “You should probably stay away from breeds that have a lot of dog fur and dander, like a Newfoundland, or those with fur and dander types that are known to be more irritating, like a Shar Pei.”
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While the recommended approach for people with pet allergies is to avoid dogs and cats all together, that doesn’t always have to be the case. In fact, it all worked out for me and my husband — we’re the proud pet parents of a handsome, smart, “hypoallergenic” Wheaten Terrier named Hugo, even though my husband has dog allergies and never thought he’d be able to own a dog. Now we’re one, big, happy family — and we dote on that dog like there’s no tomorrow.