Contrary to popular belief, people aren't allergic to animal hair, rather, to a protein found in the saliva, dander (dead skin cells), or urine of an animal with fur. These proteins are carried in the air on very small, invisible particles, which can land on the lining of the eyes or nose, or be inhaled directly into the lungs. Symptoms of animal allergy can include sneezing, an itchy, runny nose, and itchy, swollen eyes and throat. Itching of the skin or a raised, red rash (hives) can also result from touching an animal to which you are allergic. Usually, symptoms will occur quickly, sometimes within minutes after exposure to the animal. For some people, symptoms may build and become most severe 8 to 12 hours after they have had contact with the animal.
If you cannot avoid exposure to the animal that causes your allergy symptoms, try to minimize contact. Most importantly, keep the pet out of the bedroom and other rooms in which those with allergies spend a great deal of time. Some studies have demonstrated that bathing dogs or cats on a weekly basis may reduce the amount of allergens that are shed in the home. This issue remains controversial. If you plan to wash your pet regularly, consult with your veterinarian regarding care of the animal's skin to prevent excessive dryness. Also, have a non-allergic family member brush the pet outside to remove loose hair and allergens. While dander and saliva are the source of cat and dog allergens, urine is the source of allergens from rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs; ask a non-allergic family member to clean the animal's cage.
Animal allergens can accumulate on all horizontal and even vertical surfaces in the home. Mattresses and cushions should be covered in zippered, plastic casings to prevent the release of allergens. Vacuuming is not effective in decreasing animal allergens, because it does not clean the lower levels of the rug. In fact, it can stir up small allergen particles, which can also move right through the vacuum. Using a HEPA vacuum filter or double bags may help. As with dust mites, the best solution is to have a hardwood floor, tile or linoleum. Replace bedding and carpeting that has animal dander in it. It can take weeks or months for fabrics to come clean of allergens, and animal allergens may persist for a year or more after the animal has been removed.