The question: I’ve recently adopted a puppy, who I love, but I’ve noticed that I’m sneezing and coughing a lot more than usual when I'm at home. I even feel easily out of breath on occasion. I’m a healthy woman and this has never been an issue for me. Is Bunker making me sick? Is there anything else I could do other than give him up?
The answer: Pet ownership has known positive health benefits, both physically and emotionally. But for some people, being around animals can be problematic.
In your case, it sounds like your body may be having an allergic reaction to Bunker and he’s triggering a cascade of symptoms. I'm concerned that you’re experiencing a wheeze and cough, which may indicate that your symptoms are affecting both your nasal passages and lungs.
Allergies happen when our immune system recognizes an allergen in the environment that is not dangerous, but is perceived as harmful. The immune system recognizes these allergens as foreign and tries to clear them by triggering a release of inflammatory markers like histamine.
This cascade effect leads to inflammation in the upper and lower respiratory tracts, skin and eyes, which can commonly cause itchy and watery eyes, runny nose and hives. Regular exposure to allergens can lead to chronic inflammation, which can then lead to asthmatic symptoms. Common allergens include dust, pollen and mould.
With pet allergies, the allergen is a protein in animal skin, saliva and urine. In most cases, these allergies are triggered by dander or dead flakes of skin that are shed by the animal.
We are each unique in terms of what we are sensitive to in our environment, and while it seems clear that Bunker is triggering these symptoms, it would be important to do an inventory of your work and home environment to see if there are other potential allergens you may be sensitive to.
If it is unclear after doing this, consider seeing your doctor to have allergy testing done to confirm what the trigger may be.
If it’s confirmed that you have an allergy to Bunker, the best option is to consider finding a new home for him. This is not meant to seem harsh, as it can be incredibly painful to give up a beloved pet. But keeping him can lead to a worsening of your symptoms, and, in some situations, it can cause asthma.
According to the Asthma Society of Canada, the removal of a pet from the home is the single most effective environmental avoidance strategy for controlling asthma. If you do find a new family for your pet, it can take several months for the dander to clear from your house, so your symptoms may persist for some time.
If you choose to keep Bunker, there are some steps you can take to decrease the exposure to allergens:
1. Have someone without pet allergies wash your dog regularly to reduce build-up of dander.
2. Remove carpeting in your home and switch to hardwood floors, tile or linoleum to prevent allergen from sticking to the fibers.
3. If you have a cat, have someone else clean the litter box, and keep it away from air filters and vents.
4. Invest in a HEPA filter, either in your central ventilation system or as a portable machine to assist with cleaning the air of allergens.
5. Keep pet-free zones in your home, like in your bedroom.
Remember, these are not perfect solutions. Even with our best efforts, animal dander and allergens are airborne and can spread through heating and ventilation systems and stick to furniture and clothing for some time.
In addition to environmental avoidance techniques, you could consider treatment for your allergies. For symptoms like a runny nose and itchy eyes, over-the-counter antihistamines can be very helpful, but be cautious of side effects like drowsiness.
For a cough or wheeze, your doctor could do investigations to test for asthma. They may consider prescribing a steroid inhaler to decrease inflammation in your airways.
You could also consider allergy shots, which involve being injected with small amounts of the trigger allergen so that, over time, they decrease your body's sensitivity to it. While some people do find benefit with allergy shots, it can take several months for it to be effective, and it does not work for everyone.
Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe is the medical director at the Immigrant Womens’ Health Centre, works as a staff physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in their Family Practice Unit and at Hassle Free Clinic, and established and runs an on-site clinic at Women’s Habitat Shelter in Etobicoke.
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