What are the common causes of an allergic reaction to pets?

Sneezing, watery eyes, nasal congestion, and general irritation are all signs of an allergic reaction to pets. The exact cause of a pet allergy can be difficult to determine, as speculation abounds. Some individuals claim that various breeds of animals incite allergic reactions, while others point to the length of the pet's hair as the culprit. Despite the myths and hypotheses, the most common cause of an allergic reaction is dander: the small flakes of exfoliated skin that the pet sheds. Other common causes include allergic reactions to pet saliva and urine.

People who experience an allergic reaction to pets have hypersensitive immune systems. Not all types of allergic reactions are the same. Some people allergic to plant pollen may or may not be allergic to pets, and vice versa. The cause of a pet allergy lies in the proteins in animal dander, urine and saliva. These proteins stimulate the immune system of sensitive individuals, causing immune system responses similar to those of the common cold or flu.

Pet dander is regularly shed from the exfoliating skin of dogs and cats. Small drops of saliva are left on the cat or dog as they pant or lick their fur. Urine droplets stick to the fur or are scattered throughout the house. Contrary to popular belief, pet hair is not usually the cause of an allergic reaction to pets, but hair is the reservoir for allergens.

Microscopic proteins from dandruff, urine, and saliva dry out and become airborne. These particles infiltrate the respiratory system of the allergic person, whose immune system reacts sharply. The immune system produces immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies and histamine, causing recognizable feelings of discomfort, swelling, and congestion.

Since the symptoms of an allergic reaction to pets mimic the symptoms of the common cold and other viral illnesses, the best method to determine a true pet allergy is through a medical exam and a blood or skin test. A lab technician performs what is called a radioallergosorbent test (RAST), which tests for several common allergens and checks the blood for reactions to the allergens. While not a comprehensive test for all allergies, the test helps determine the cause of many common allergies, including allergic reactions to dogs and cats.

Treatment of an allergic reaction to pets depends largely on the sensitivity of the individual and the presence of pets in the environment. Most people avoid cats and dogs altogether. Antihistamines relieve congestion, swelling, and redness associated with histamine production in the body. Anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening allergic reaction of shortness of breath, rapid pulse, and weakness, requires emergency medical attention and treatment with epinephrine. Other common medical treatments include corticosteroids, decongestants, and allergy shots or pills that reduce immune system responses.

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