Pet Dander: What It Is and What to Do About It

Updated on: May 16, 2022
Cat and dog allergens are everywhere, even in homes without pets. People with pet allergies can experience an increase in their asthma and allergy symptoms if people enter their pet-free home with fur on their clothing. As much as 20% of the world’s population is allergic to cats and dogs, and that number is rising.

Cat and dog allergens are everywhere, even in homes without pets. People with pet allergies can experience an increase in their asthma and allergy symptoms if people enter their pet-free home with fur on their clothing. 

As much as 20% of the world’s population is allergic to cats and dogs, and that number is rising, with cat allergies being the most prevalent. Some people think certain dogs and cats are “hypo-allergenic,” but that isn’t the case. All dogs and cats carry allergens to some degree. (1)

What Is Pet Dander?

Pet dander is tiny bits of skin shed by dogs, cats, and other pets with fur and feathers. For people who are allergic, these bits of skin can trigger reactions. Protein found in saliva, feces, and urine can cause allergic reactions in some people as well. 

Many people believe that shorthaired cats and dogs are better for reducing the amount of dander, but that’s not the case at all. Pet dander comes from the skin and excretions of the animals, not the fur. (2)

What Is Pet Dander Allergy?

There’s no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog or cat, as all produce allergens. If every time you’re around cats and dogs, you experience the following symptoms, you most likely have a pet dander allergy. (3, 4)

  • Chest tightness
  • Coughing
  • Itchy and watery eyes
  • Nasal congestion
  • Shortness of breath
  • Skin rash or hives
  • Sneezing
  • Wheezing

Twice as many people are allergic to cats as dogs, but if you have a pet dander allergy, you may experience a reaction around either species. Pet dander is lightweight and small. The allergens can remain suspended in the air for quite a while, much longer than dust particles. 

Under a microscope, animal dander is tiny and jagged in appearance. It can easily stick to furniture, bedding, clothing, and fabrics, and be easily carried into and out of the home. Because of this, you can find dander in people’s homes without pets.

8 Myths About Pet Dander 

There are many myths about what causes pet allergies. Some are true; some are false. Here are some common myths and some information about pet dander and allergies. (5)

Myth #1: A pet’s fur causes allergies. 

False. Dander, saliva, skin, and urine cause allergies, not fur.

Myth #2: Dogs and cats who shed more cause more allergy problems for people. 

True. While all cats and dogs carry allergens, long-haired pets can trap more dander in their fur. When they shed, those allergens are dispersed throughout the house and sit on clothing, floors, and furniture.

Myth #3: Rodents are better to have for allergy sufferers.

False. Rodents may have less fur but still carry allergens, just as dogs and cats do.

Myth #4: Restricting pets to a few rooms makes allergies easier to tolerate. 

False. Although allergens would be more concentrated in those rooms where the pets stay, allergens can still carry to other rooms on clothing and shoes.

Myth #5: You can be allergic to some breeds of cats and dogs and not others.
True. Your tolerance level for allergens could differ from one pet breed to another. Not all pets carry the same allergens, and you may find you’re less likely to experience allergies depending on the breed and species. Cats carry twice as many allergens as dogs.

Myth #6: If you discover that you are allergic to your pet, you must rehome the pet. 

False. There are things you can do to reduce the number of allergens in your home. Bathing your pet more frequently, having a HEPA filter running in your home, vacuuming, and frequently cleaning all reduce the number of allergens circulating in your home.

Myth #7: You can become desensitized to your pet. 

True. Many people find they experience fewer reactions around their pets than around other pets outside the home.

Myth #8: Pets with little or no fur are better for people with allergies. 

False. Since dander comes from the skin and not fur, short-haired pets aren’t necessarily less likely to produce allergens.

Pet Dander vs. Dandruff: What’s the Difference?

Pet dander and dandruff are often confused. Dander is microscopic pieces of shedding skin cells mixed with dried saliva. The proteins found in pet dander are the cause of watery eyes, sneezing, and wheezing in those with pet allergies. 

 As with dander, dandruff is made up of the same proteins that cause allergies in those with sensitivities. The main difference between dander and dandruff is the white visible flakes of dead skin that you can see on your pet’s fur. 

Whereas dander is natural for your pets to produce, dandruff is a sign of an underlying health issue. Pet dandruff can be caused by many different internal and external factors. Some of these causes of dandruff include: (6)

  • Allergic reaction to cat food or litter
  • Changes in temperature & humidity
  • Mites, fleas, ticks
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Obesity
  • Oil glands that over-secrete
  • Poor grooming habits
  • Poor diet

In cases of excess dandruff, you may want to first rule our mites, fleas, ticks, parasites, or other external issues. Feeding your pet a high-quality food can help maintain a healthy weight and reduce the amount of dandruff pets produce.

Also, consider adding supplementation, including omega-3s. A deficiency in omega-3s may cause coat issues, like dandruff. 

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What Can You Do for Pet Dander Allergies?

Studies suggest that bathing your pets frequently can help to reduce the amount of dander they shed. Concerning cats, bathing them several times a week is impractical, especially because most cats hate water. 

The best thing to do is not have a pet with fur or feathers if you have a pet dander allergy. However, because pets can bring comfort and companionship, many people will seek out a pet anyway, opting for one they feel will be least likely to trigger an allergic reaction. 

Because all pets with fur and feathers carry allergens, the best way to manage and control allergen exposure is to minimize the amount of dander your pet produces. 

Fortunately, there are other things you can do to reduce your exposure to dander. (7, 8)

  • A visit to an immunologist or allergist can yield suggestions on reducing your reaction to pet allergens.
  • Bathe your pet at least once a week to cut down on dander production and fur shedding.
  • Clean your pets’ toys with warm soapy water to remove allergens.
  • Consider a product such as a HEPA filter to minimize the amount of dander circulating throughout your home.
  • Have someone without pet allergies brush your pets regularly.
  • Keep pets out of your bedroom and off of the furniture as much as possible.
  • Keep rooms such as bedrooms and other frequently used areas restricted from your pet.
  • Limit the amount of petting you do, as not to trigger an allergy as easily.
  • Remove carpeting and rugs and use hardwood or laminate, which are easier to clean and won’t hold allergens.
  • Try to avoid kissing and hugging your pet.
  • Use a microfilter in your vacuum to reduce the number of pet allergens in your carpet.
  • Use air filters throughout your home.
  • Vacuum and dust the surfaces of your home frequently.
  • Wear a mask that covers your mouth and nose when you brush your pet.

For many people, pets are just as much a part of the family as human members. For those who love pets but have pet allergies, it is difficult to say no to having a furry friend. Fortunately, you can do things to reduce the frequency and severity of allergic reactions from dander. 

Taking some of the steps outlined above can help you enjoy your time at home with your four-legged friends.

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