Pets are very popular -- 44 percent of Americans own a dog, according to a recent survey from the American Pet Products Association. However, for the 26 million people with asthma, pets in the house can greatly exacerbate symptoms. One important facet of asthma management is to try to avoid triggers. So how do you balance a love of dogs with the need to not have an asthma attack? It is a common belief that certain breeds of dogs may be less likely to exacerbate your asthma symptoms, but that might not necessarily be true.
What Triggers Asthma
Asthma is a serious chronic lung condition in which the airways can become inflamed and narrow, causing coughing, wheezing, tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing. The airways of someone with asthma tend to be more sensitive to certain conditions or inhaled substances that can trigger the small muscle cells surrounding the airways to contract, constricting the airways. Common triggers or irritants that can cause an asthma attack include smoke, pollen, dust mites, cockroach allergens, fungus allergens, rodents like mice and rats, and pet dander. Allergens are normally harmless to most people, but can trigger allergic reactions or asthmatic responses in people who are sensitive to them.
Why Pets Can Trigger a Reaction
Some people mistakenly believe that loose dog fur floating around the house triggers their allergic or asthmatic reactions. However, that is not the case. The primary culprit is proteins found in the dog’s saliva, secretions, urine and dander. These microscopic dander flakes and dried fluids may become airborne and directly irritate the lungs. The main proteins that trigger allergic reactions to dogs are called Canis familiaris 1 and 2. While some of these proteins can be found on fur from licking or tiny bits of attached skin, most of the allergens are found in the dander.
Any Breed Might Trigger a Reaction
Dogs that don't shed their fur or have shorter hair are sometimes promoted as “hypoallergenic,” meaning they are less likely to cause an allergic reaction. The American Kennel Club website even lists several hypoallergenic dog breeds. Evidence suggests, however, that hypoallergenic dogs can be just as allergenic as their counterparts. A study in the July/August 2011 issue of "American Journal of Rhinology and Allergy" collected samples from homes containing various breeds of dogs and measured the levels of the Can f1 allergen. The authors found no differences between homes with hypoallergenic dogs versus homes with non-hypoallergenic breeds. Also, different dogs of the same breed have been linked to remarkably different allergen loads.
Yet the possibility that some dogs could be better tolerated by allergic patients than others is still in play. One consideration is that dogs that spend more time outdoors have the potential to shuttle more allergens inside on their fur. While the science is not settled, two different studies examining different dog allergens seem to hint at the possibility of a theoretical advantage with retriever-type dogs.
What You Can Do
While a specific breed of dog may not be less likely to trigger your asthma symptoms, there are several steps you can take to reduce your risks. A qualified allergist can help you determine which specific allergens you are sensitive to. If you have a dog in your home, cleaning often is recommended to reduce the amount of pet dander and other allergens. This is especially true of bedding, carpet, drapes and upholstered furniture where dander can accumulate. Keeping your dog off of bedding, upholstered furniture and carpeted areas will help as well. Your doctor may also suggest immunotherapy/allergy shots to help decrease your sensitivity to dog allergens over time. Your doctor may also prescribe asthma medications. If you should begin having a severe asthma attack, take your fast-acting medication as soon as you notice symptoms, because severe attacks can be potentially fatal.
- The Humane Society: Pets by the Numbers
- Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: Asthma
- Allergy: Dog saliva – an important source of dog allergens
- Allergy: Dog factor differences in Can f 1 allergen production
- American Kennel Club: Hypoallergenic Dog Breeds
- American Journal of Rhinology & Allergy: Dog allergen levels in homes with hypoallergenic compared with nonhypoallergenic dogs
- American College of Allergy Asthma & Immunology: Hypoallergenic Dogs?
- Environmental Health Perspectives: Environmental Exposures of Asthma: An Update to the 2000 Review by the Institute of Medicine
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Asthma Triggers: Gain Control: Pets