Odd allergens that can make your pet downright miserable

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

how to reduce pet allergens in home

Story at-a-glance -

  • If your pet has environmental allergies, it can be challenging to discover potential triggers, including those in your home
  • Indoor allergens that can make your dog or cat miserable include dust mites, pet beds made with synthetic materials, human dander and household cleaning agents
  • In addition to identifying and ridding your home of allergy triggers, it’s also important to evaluate your pet’s diet

Lots of pets today have environmental allergies, and it can be challenging to discover potential triggers, even when they exist inside your home. Let’s take a look at a few indoor allergens that might be the root cause of your own dog’s or cat’s misery.

4 often overlooked indoor allergens that may be making your pet miserable

1. Dust mites — According to board-certified veterinary dermatologist Dr. John Gordon, dust mites are the most common environmental allergen in skin allergy-tested dogs. “A veterinary university study that evaluated the presence of house dust mites in pet beds found a significant increase in the amount of house dust mite allergen collected in pet beds older than one year,” he says.1 And this was the case no matter the type of bed or how it was cleaned.

In the average home, dust mites are found in materials like carpeting, upholstered furniture, mattresses, bedding and cloth toys (including pet toys). They thrive in warm, moist air (the kind we and our pets exhale during sleep) and darkness — which is why they are often found in bedding, both yours and your pet’s. Their bodies are translucent.

Dust mites survive on a diet of dead skin, bacteria, fungi and viruses in the environment. They prefer to feed on hypersensitive (allergic) individuals because the lipids in their skin are different from those of non-allergic people and pets. What makes them allergenic is a protein found in their feces.

If your cat or dog receives a confirmed diagnosis of dust mite allergy, I recommend first trying to rid your home environment of mites. This can be challenging, because studies show the most effective method of treatment is to air out fabrics your pet is exposed to on either a hot, sunny or cold dry day for 12 hours, then vacuuming. Other suggestions:

Switch to mattress covers made of microporous fabric ("dust mite covers”)

Cover your pet's bed in a sheet that repels dust mites and wash it weekly

Wash bedding in hot water at least monthly, or in cold water and tea tree oil (10 drops per gallon) or add a cup of white vinegar to the wash

Remove carpets from bedrooms

Vacuum all carpets and upholstery often (at least weekly) using a vacuum with a HEPA filter

Steam-clean mattresses, pet bedding and upholstered furniture

Many veterinarians recommend immunotherapy, i.e., allergy shots or sublingual (under-the-tongue) drops. This is a much safer option than immunosuppressant drugs like cyclosporine or other immunosuppressants or corticosteroids. I prefer to hold off on powerful drugs that shut down the immune system, and instead, deal with the animal's environment first, in conjunction with some other safe, commonsense steps.

These include regular foot soaks and bathing to wash away allergens and soothe irritated skin; feeding a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate, anti-inflammatory diet; providing fresh, good-quality drinking water and avoiding over-vaccinating/over-medicating to ensure your pet's immune system remains strong and resilient.

You can also consider investing in an air purifier to control dust mites, and switching to nontoxic cleaning agents to lessen your pet's overall toxic load.

2. Pet beds — Pets can be allergic to all kinds of things in their environment, but one common item many people never even consider as a source of allergens is their pet’s bed. Often, it’s the filling in the bed that causes problems. Filling materials such as synthetic or latex memory foam can cause allergies in pets.

In addition, if your furry family member has been using the bed for a period of time, skin cells have accumulated under the fabric covering and on the surface of the foam, which is a magnet for dust mites — especially if there’s any moisture on the bed. In addition to the filling, some outer fabrics are more allergenic than others. As Dr. Hyunmin Kim, veterinary staff manager for the ASPCA Community Medicine Department, tells PetMD:

“Manufacturing synthetic fabrics requires certain chemicals and processes. These chemicals, such as flame retardants, are known to be allergenic. Some fabrics also allow the accumulation of dust mites, mold, mildew and bacteria that can exacerbate skin sensitivities.”2

Dr. Kim recommends cover fabrics made of 100% cotton, hemp (a naturally grown crop that isn’t sprayed with pesticides or other chemicals), or a tightly woven microfiber fabric, as these materials are less likely to trigger an allergic response.

I recommend safe, organic bedding for your animal companion, which means avoiding the flame-retardant chemicals and other toxins often found in commercial pet beds sold at most retail stores, including pet stores. Pets who sleep in beds treated with flame retardants are receiving significant levels of exposure to those chemicals.

One particular type of flame retardant, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, is a special problem. Studies have linked PBDEs with a number of health problems in both people and pets. Other flame-retardant chemicals include boric acid, which is a toxic respiratory irritant; antimony, a metal that is potentially more toxic than mercury; and formaldehyde, a well-known hazardous substance.

If your pet’s bedding isn’t labeled organic and free of flame retardants, you can assume it has been treated with these chemicals. When shopping for a safe dog bed, look for one that hasn’t been treated with chemicals, and is preferably made with organic materials that are naturally flame resistant, for example, organic cotton or silk. Silk is a great material as well because dust mites can’t survive in silk.

You also want a bed that’s very comfortable and resilient to withstand rough treatment by your dog. Pet beds made with natural fibers are preferable to synthetic pet beds, which as I discussed earlier, can exacerbate skin allergies and cause overheating in your pet. Another important feature in a pet bed is a cover that can be easily removed for washing.

3. Human dander — Many pet guardians are shocked to learn their dog or cat is allergic to them. But since humans can be sensitive to pet dander, it makes sense that some pets are also allergic to us. According to Dr. Tom Lewis, a veterinary dermatologist in Phoenix, when pets are allergic to humans, “It’s never an obvious and direct reaction. They’ll scratch and get a lot of secondary infections. Some of these dogs just are miserable.”3

And because it takes time and repeated exposure to human dander for an allergy to develop, the average dog is 2 to 5 years old before he begins to react. Pet allergies to human dander are fairly common, but often go undiagnosed. If your dog or cat has a confirmed allergy, the usual advice is to remove the allergen (in this case, you and all other human members of the household) from your pet’s environment, which obviously isn’t a workable solution.

A few commonsense environmental changes can be helpful, such as getting a good-quality air purifier, vacuuming and mopping regularly to remove human dander and hair, and if your dog or cat sleeps on your bed with you, covering your bedding with a hypoallergenic, washable duvet to keep your skin cells away from him.

You can also opt for desensitization injections (allergy shots), or oral drops if available. Studies show sublingual (under the tongue) drops can be just as effective as injections. If you happen to live near an NAET practitioner (NAET = Nambudripad's Allergy Elimination Techniques), he or she may also be able to offer a nontoxic means of allergy elimination.

I routinely prescribe certain supplements for pets with allergies, starting with quercetin, which I call “nature’s Benadryl” because it’s very effective at suppressing histamine release. Histamine is what causes the inflammation, redness and irritation associated with an allergic response.

Bromelain and papain are proteolytic enzymes that increase absorption of quercetin, making it more effective. I like to combine quercetin, bromelain and papain together because they have a great synergistic effect. They also suppress prostaglandin release, which in turn decreases the pain and inflammation of irritated mucous membranes and other areas of the body.

I also frequently recommend a product called HistoPlex-AB by Biotics Research. This is a blend of standardized herbal extracts with immunomodulating effects. I also use ModucareVet by Thorne and a product called EpiCor to help modulate overactive immune systems. Nettles tincture (an herbal remedy), curcumin and vitamin C can also be beneficial for these pets. Additionally, there may be several homeopathic remedies that can benefit your pet, based on his specific symptoms.

4. Household chemicals — Helping a sensitive dog or cat means looking at everything your pet is exposed to on a daily basis and eliminating as many potential triggers as possible. If your pet has allergies, it can be very important to limit her exposure to all unnecessary environmental chemicals, especially indoors.

Many commercial cleaning products pollute the air inside your home by off-gassing toxic fumes that can be very hazardous, not to mention irritating, to pets. Many cleaners also contain antibacterial substances that are not only unnecessary but can actually help bacteria become stronger and more resistant to killing agents.

Replacing chemical household cleaners with a few simple, inexpensive and nontoxic agents will lighten your pet’s toxic load and cut down on a number of potential triggers that can set off an allergic response. You can find suggestions for safe alternatives here.

Think about where your allergic dog or cat spends most of her time when she’s inside the house, then consider making changes to ensure she isn’t exposed to environmental pollutants in the areas where she hangs out. For example, if your dog naps on the floor like most do, make the switch to safe, nontoxic floor cleaners first.

If your kitty loves to snooze on a favorite blanket or pillow, consider switching to a green laundry detergent or research how to make your own. And don’t use chemical dryer sheets with any fabric that your pets will come in contact with. I can’t tell you the number of my clients who’ve seen overall improvement with generalized itchiness, red skin and upper respiratory symptoms just by getting rid of their plugins and all other synthetic home air-scenting products.

Try taking a step every week or maybe a new step every two weeks towards depolluting your pet’s indoor environment. You may find you ultimately hit on something that makes a significant improvement in your pet’s allergic response, or you may simply get the peace of mind that comes with knowing nothing in your home is contributing to your pet’s suffering.

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Don’t overlook your pet’s diet as a possible contributor

One of the first things I do for a dog or cat with allergies is review their diet and check for leaky gut syndrome. Your pet's gastrointestinal (GI) tract has the very important job of deciding what nutrients to allow into the bloodstream, and which to keep out. The job of the GI tract is to allow nutrients in while keeping allergens out. When the gut starts to “leak,” it means it’s allowing allergens into the bloodstream.

Often medications, especially antibiotics and steroids, cause leaky gut syndrome. Any pet on routine drug therapy should be assessed for a leaky gut. Another trigger for leaky gut is a processed diet containing genetically modified ingredients.

There’s a canine dysbiosis test from Texas A&M GI lab you can use to check for this condition, but even better, have your pet’s microbiome assessed through AnimalBiome. They also have a biome restoration program that can dramatically improve pet’s quality of life that suffer from atopy, or ask your vet about microbiome restorative therapy.

Pets with allergies should be transitioned to an anti-inflammatory diet very low in grain content. It should contain no soy, corn, rice, wheat, organic whole wheat, tapioca, peas, lentils, chickpeas or potatoes. By eliminating extra sugar and carbohydrates, you'll also limit the food supply for yeast, which can be very beneficial for allergic pets.

I also recommend boosting the omega-3 fatty acids in your allergic pet’s diet. The best sources of these fatty acids come from the ocean, including krill, salmon, tuna, anchovy and sardine oil, and other sources of fish body oils.

Coconut oil can be beneficial for allergic pets as well because it contains lauric acid, which has natural antifungal properties that can help suppress the production of yeast in the body. It’s important to offer your pet clean, pure drinking water that doesn’t contain fluoride, fluorine, heavy metals or other contaminants.

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