Allergic to dogs? Here’s how to live with a dog anyway


Adam Cecil

Adam Cecil

Former Staff Writer

Adam Cecil is a former staff writer for Policygenius, a digital insurance brokerage trying to make sense of insurance for consumers. He is a podcast producer, writer, and video maker based in Brooklyn, NY.

Published November 30, 2015|3 min read

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When the Obamas were looking for a White House dog, they had two criteria: they wanted to adopt a shelter dog and they needed a breed that was hypoallergenic. If you’re allergic to dogs, like Malia Obama, you’ve probably heard the term hypoallergenic before. It’s a fancy word that describes dogs that don’t trigger allergies. Unfortunately for Malia and folks with dog allergies everywhere, it may be a pipe dream.According to a 2011 study, there’s no proof that certain breeds produce less allergens than any other breed. That means that Bo Obama, the Obama’s Portuguese Water Dog, is just as likely to give you the sniffles as any other dog.

How did the myth of the hypoallergenic dog start? No one really knows, but Christine Cole Johnson, one of the authors of that 2011 study, believes it may be related to misconceptions around shedding. According to some who perpetuate the idea of hypoallergenic breeds, the less a dog sheds, the less likely it’ll tickle receptors in your nostrils.But a dog’s hair isn’t what triggers allergies. Instead, it’s a little protein that’s produced in the dog’s skin. That protein can then end up in dander, which can become airborne. Once it’s airborne, it can contaminate everything: your clothes, your carpeting, your nostrils, etc. Plus, you know how dogs lick themselves? That helps dander get into their saliva as well.The worst part is that there’s really no way to predict how much allergen a dog will produce. It doesn’t matter how big the dog is, how long their hair is, or how much they shed. It also doesn’t matter what breed they are. Even breeds that studies admit are more likely to be hypoallergenic than others note that the variation between individual dogs is huge. In layman’s terms: even if the Portuguese Water Dog produces, on average, less allergen than other breeds, there’s no guarantee that a specific Portuguese Water Dog will be hypoallergenic.

So, what can the 10% of Americans who have a dog allergy do if they really want a dog?First all of, the fact that every dog produces a different level of that trouble protein is actually a good thing. That means that any dog, regardless of whether the breed is identified as "hypoallergenic," could be the right fit for you and your allergies. Another important thing to note? If your dog allergy is severe, you shouldn’t even try to tempt fate by bringing a dog into the household. Try a really playful cat, instead.If your allergies are less severe, see if you can try out a dog on a trial basis. Some breeders or shelters will let you bring a dog home for a few weeks, then bring the dog back if it turns out they’re not a good fit. This can be emotionally disturbing for the dog, however, so don’t be surprised if the shelter isn't super keen on you bringing home a dog for a trial.

No matter how much allergen a dog produces, there are a few things you can do to help reduce the amount of dander gets into the air:

  • Bathe your dog twice a week. This helps reduce the amount of dander on the skin that flakes off and starts flying. Some studies have shown that bathing a dog twice a week can eliminate the owner’s allergic reactions entirely.

  • Adopt a smaller dog that’s easier to bathe.

  • Clean and vacuum your home, a lot.

  • Use air filters.

  • Limit your dog to certain rooms. This will make it easier to clean up dander and give the allergic human a few safe spaces in the house.

Do you have experience introducing a dog into a home with allergic humans? We’d love to hear your stories. Leave a comment below and let us know how you handle dog allergies.

Image: Phillippe Stanus