Having a pet is great for both your mental and physical health (score!). But when you throw allergies into the mix—cue sneezing, watery eyes, or even asthma attacks—bringing home a furry family member could cause more stress than it would relieve. If you get itchy every time you visit your best friend—and her four-legged best friend—does it mean you’re destined for a life without a cat or dog?
According to Purvi Parikh, MD, an FACP allergist and immunologist with Allergy and Asthma Associates of Murray Hill, there’s hope: Getting a pet could exacerbate your existing allergies, sure, but it could also help kick them to the curb.
“An allergy only develops after your immune system has encountered something several times and decides that it’s become hypersensitive to that specific allergen. So with bringing a pet into your home, either you can develop the allergy or having the dog or cat can actually make you tolerant of those allergens,” she says. “But we still don’t have a way of predicting which people will become allergic and which won’t.”
While there’s no exact formula to foretell how getting a pet will affect you, Dr. Parikh does have some pointers to help you evaluate your risk of becoming allergic to your pup—and advice on how even those with the most severe pet allergies could live in peace with Fluffy or Fido.
Keep reading for 4 factors that could impact how your immune system reacts to your furry new BFF.
1. You currently experience allergies of any kind
Preexisting allergies are a red flag when it comes to judging how your immune system might react to bringing in a four-legged family member, according to Dr. Parikh. “Already having environmental allergies or any type of allergy puts you at risk of developing other allergies. That means your immune system has gone down a more allergy-prone pathway,” she says. So if you haven’t outgrown your food allergies and get hives just thinking about peanut butter—and especially if you have a serious allergy that necessitates carrying an Epi-Pen—there’s a higher likelihood your pup will make you sneeze.
2. Whether or not you had a pet growing up
If you’re hard-pressed to recall a time in your childhood when you were without a furry pal, you’re in luck when it comes to the pet-specific allergy situation. “Age of exposure to potential allergens makes a difference. One study came out this past year about women. If they’re pregnant and exposed to cats or dogs, then their child is less likely to be allergic to the animal. There are also some studies that show young kids that have pets are also less likely to be allergic to the animal,” says Dr. Parikh.
3. Knowing if your parents are allergy-prone
If you never had pets growing up, and don’t typically experience allergies yourself, it could be helpful to look to your parents for insight. According to Dr. Parikh, “Allergies are a bit of a lottery, but there is a very strong genetic component. Having even one parent with an allergy increases your risk of having allergies. Having two parents can increase your risk almost six-fold.”
One caveat: You’re more likely to have allergies in general if your parents do, too, but you won’t necessarily be allergic to the same things.
4. If your current pet allergy can be remedied
Whether your symptoms are uncomfortable (think sneezing fits) or dangerous (life-threatening asthma attacks), you can work closely with an allergist to make your symptoms all but disappear.
“With these people, we can make their allergies less severe and in some cases, even cure their allergies with desensitization through allergy shots. This is ideal for pet owners who develop an allergy but can’t get rid of a pet, or even for allergies to things you can’t avoid like pollen or dust,” says Dr. Parikh. If you’re considering allergy desensitization, remember that it’s not something to DIY. Treating known allergies should only be done when working closely with your doctor and an allergy specialist.
So wipe your dander-fueled tears, sneezing and wheezing dog- and cat-lovers, pet parenthood is possible after all.
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