Dogs have been referred to as man's best friend forever, and over the past several years, it seems that pets have become increasingly popular. From bumper stickers proudly declaring the car's owner to be the "grandmother" of a dog, to pet stores welcoming animals inside their doors, to successful businesses selling pet clothes, novelty foods and even strollers, it's obvious that many people consider their pets to be more than animals -- they're members of the family.

And, of course, kids often benefit from having a pet. They learn responsibility through feeding, grooming and cleaning up after their cats. They stay in shape by taking their dogs for walks and running around the yard with them. And, whatever type of animal they have, they have a built-in companion and friend.

But what about families with pet allergies? What does a parent tell a child when Dad will have an asthma attack if he's exposed to a dog? Or when the child himself can't get too close to Fluffy without suffering a sneezing fit?

What causes pet allergies?

First, most experts agree that there's no such thing as a truly hypoallergenic pet. Dr. Jo Hermberg, a veterinarian at Pet Partners Animal Clinic in Sussex, explains that it's not an animal's fur that people react to. "They're actually allergic to dander, the microscopic pieces of skin or particles that have dried form urine or feces." Because of this, even hairless animals can cause allergic people to react.

While animals who shed less, or whose coats grow in a manner which keep the dander out of the air, may be more allergy-friendly than others, there's no guarantee that even those animals won't cause a reaction.

For that reason, Hermberg recommends that families do a trial run with an animal before actually making the commitment of owning it. After spending some time with the animal, families will be in a better position to gauge whether anyone is allergic to it. And, if they are, they can pass on purchasing the pet.

Can we have a pet anyway?

Even if a person does have a pet allergy, there are different variations of reactions. Some people may get itchy eyes and a stuffy nose and decide they can live with those symptoms around their pet. Other people get asthma attacks or even full-blown anaphylaxis when exposed to animals. Dr. Leslie Gimenez, an allergist at Children's Hospital, who routinely recommends avoidance as the best way to avoid an allergic reaction, acknowledges that it's difficult to convince people with minor symptoms to forego pet ownership. However, she says, "If they have a history of a pet causing asthma symptoms, or if they have more severe nasal allergies with sinus infection complications, I would definitely be harder on trying to convince them not to have the pet in their home if possible."

When people with allergies do decide to have pets in the home, both Hermberg and Gimenez recommend similar measures to limit dander exposure, such as keeping the pet outdoors, or at least not on furniture, carpeted areas or in the allergic person's bedroom.

Alternatives to dogs and cats

But what about a family who, even after taking these measures, cannot comfortably live with a dog or cat?

  • Try a pet that is more easily contained, such as a hamster or guinea pig that spends most of its time in a cage.
  • If furry doesn't work for you, try a reptile or amphibian. Although these animals do shed their skin, snakes, lizards or turtles typically don't cause as many allergic reactions.
  • Fish are often go-to pets for families with pet allergies. And kids can have lots of fun setting up an aquarium.
  • Take advantage of the summer months, and encourage your child to catch lightning bugs, moths and butterflies. Bonus if they capture a caterpillar they can watch form a chrysalis and then a butterfly!

Compassion for pets and people

And, if after you already have a pet you find that a member of your family has an allergy, Hermberg points out that Southeast Wisconsin has no shortage of compassionate re-homing options. "Contact your breeder, or if your pet came from a rescue or humane society, contact them. A lot of times, these places want to see the animals come back to them so they can find them a home. Otherwise, there are a lot of breed-specific rescue groups that will help to re-home, or all the local humane societies are fantastic."

Regardless of whether you find your family can't have a traditional pet due to allergies before or after the pet is actually in the house, the most important thing is to respond with compassion and empathy.

Amy Schwabe lives in Franklin with her husband and two children, all of whom have allergies. Her family lives happily pet-free with the exception of the frogs who live in their wading pool and the monarch butterfly caterpillar who currently lives in a chrysalis.

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