In the U.S., the rising trend of dog ownership goes hand in hand with a surge in people seeking allergy-friendly canine companions. This has led to the popularity of so-called hypoallergenic dogs – breeds purported to be less likely to trigger allergic reactions. But, digging into the science of dog allergies, the reality of hypoallergenic dogs gets a little hairy.
Ultimately, the concept of a hypoallergenic dog is more a product of hopeful thinking than a reflection of scientific fact. Regardless of their “hypoallergenic” label, all dog breeds have the inherent potential to trigger allergic responses.
For allergy sufferers, it is crucial to seek guidance from healthcare professionals, as an accurate diagnosis and tailored advice are essential for effectively managing dog allergies.
An estimated 10 percent to 20 percent of the global population suffers from allergies to dogs or cats, according to a 2017 review in Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology Research. These allergic reactions are an overreaction of the immune system to proteins found in the skin cells, saliva, or other bodily fluids of our household pets.
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When someone with an allergy encounters these proteins, their immune system mistakenly identifies the proteins as harmful invaders. In response, the body produces antibodies, which latch onto the allergens, marking them for removal. The presence of antibodies tells other specialized cells to release histamine, triggering allergy symptoms such as sneezing, itching, and, in severe cases, asthma.
The most common allergen in dogs, Canis familiaris allergen 1 or Can f 1, is a protein found mainly in dog saliva that is spread through licking. This means that all dogs, including hairless breeds, can trigger allergies.
However, allergies are not primarily triggered by the dog’s hair or fur itself but by the proteins found in their saliva, skin cells, and bodily fluids. These allergens can adhere to any hair or fur, whether it’s shed frequently or not. Therefore, even breeds with hair that doesn’t shed conventionally can still carry and distribute these allergens in the environment.
The term “hypoallergenic” is commonly attached to certain dog breeds based on the belief that they are less likely to provoke allergic reactions because they carry fewer allergens.
One prevalent misconception regarding hypoallergenic dogs centers around the distinction between hair and fur. It’s commonly believed that dogs with hair, as opposed to those with fur, are less likely to trigger allergies because they don’t shed in the same manner.
“Most ‘hypoallergenic’ dogs are dogs that shed less fur or have been bred to produce a lower quantity of Can f 1,” says Ignacio Dávila, a professor and allergy researcher at the University of Salamanca. “However, that does not mean that all allergens are eliminated.”
Read More: Why Do We Have Allergies?
Studies comparing Can f 1 levels in homes with hypoallergenic and non-hypoallergenic dogs found no significant differences in allergen levels between households. In fact, some breeds labeled as hypoallergenic had higher household allergen levels than non-hypoallergenic breeds.
Further research in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found huge differences in allergen levels – not just between different breeds but also within the same breed. Again, it was found that some breeds typically labeled as hypoallergenic actually had higher allergen levels, on average, than other non-hypoallergenic breeds.
This suggests that the allergenic potential of a dog may not be solely determined by its breed, further debunking the current hypoallergenic dog narrative.
Read More: Everything to Know About Allergies
So, is abstaining from dog ownership the only sure way to avoid dog allergens? Not necessarily. According to one study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, dog allergens are not confined to homes with canine residents but can be found in up to half of homes without dogs.
For individuals with allergies or asthma, living with a dog can exacerbate their conditions. Dog allergens can intensify allergic reactions and lead to severe asthma attacks. Continued exposure can result in chronic inflammation and other respiratory issues, underscoring the importance of careful consideration for those contemplating dog ownership.
For those with dog allergies, several preventive strategies can be employed, such as keeping pets out of specific areas, using allergen-proof covers, regular cleaning, and using HEPA filters. Bathing dogs frequently can also help reduce the presence of allergens, although bathing too often can dry out your dog’s coat and skin.
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“Generally speaking, the [allergy management] approach should be the combination of several measures, although results can vary from one individual to another,” explains Dávila.
The decision to bring a dog into the home should be made with careful consideration of these factors, balancing the joy of pet ownership with the realities of allergy management.