Image: Doug Familia, 41 Nancy Familia, 38 Anthony Nocera 8
Jonathan D. Woods  /
Within an hour of bringing Jack the cat home, Doug Familia of Yonkers, N.Y., was coughing and wheezing.
By contributor
updated 3/31/2010 8:26:58 AM ET 2010-03-31T12:26:58

When Doug Familia told his wife, Nancy, he wanted to buy a cat for his stepson, she balked. Nancy knew that 8-year-old Anthony wanted a kitten, but she also knew that her husband had severe allergies to cats.

“Don’t bring a cat home if it’s going to be a problem,” she warned. Doug assured her that he was going to buy a Siberian, a breed that the pet store had advertised as “hypoallergenic.”

But within an hour of the kitten’s arrival at their Yonkers, N.Y., home, 41-year-old Doug was coughing and wheezing. His eyes became itchy and teary. He could barely breathe.

“What are we going to?” he asked Nancy. “I don’t know what you’re going to do,” she replied, “but we’re keeping the cat.”

Because Doug already had become attached to the cat, he quickly made an appointment with an allergist. Soon he was taking antihistamines and regular shots to desensitize him to the feline's dander. The therapy worked so well that these days Doug barely sniffles when his fluffy friend pops up on his lap to cuddle.

Americans love their pets and many are loath to part with their furry friends — even if it means coping with allergic reactions that include hacking, wheezing and watery eyes. Warnings of health risks don’t deter them, even though studies have shown that nasal allergies to substances like pet dander and pollen can hike the risk of asthma.

Up to 30 percent of people have some kind of allergic reaction to cats and dogs, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Allergies to cats are twice as common as reactions to dogs, experts say. While the best treatment for pet allergies is to remove the animal from the home, most allergists resist telling patients it’s time for Fluffy to go, at least until they’ve tried all other options.

“If we tell them to get rid of the pet, they’ll get rid of the allergist,” says Dr. David Resnick, director of the allergy division at the New York Presbyterian Hospital. “Most people do not remove their pets — ever.”

Image: Doug Familia, 41 Nancy Familia, 38 Anthony Nocera 8
Jonathan D. Woods  /
Shots and antihistamines helped desensitize Doug Familia's allergic reaction to Jack the cat
Sometimes people manage to get over the allergy just by dint of surviving constant exposure to dander and hair, but it's unclear how often that strategy works. A recent study that found that kids who grew up in a home with both a cat and a dog were less likely to develop allergies. So, if you want to have children and pets, it might make sense to get the cat or dog first, says allergy expert Todd Green, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Without treatment, most people will go on hacking and sniffling, says Resnick. Along with antihistamines and desensitizing shots, various lifestyle changes are recommended to minimize the amount of hair and dander floating around the house.

Resnick tells his patients to get rid of wall-to-wall carpets because it’s almost impossible to clean pet dander out of the rugs. Hardwood floors that can be wiped down with a wet cloth are much better. Vacuuming just makes the problem worse — unless the device is equipped with a HEPA filter — because normal vacuums put more dander in the air than they pick up. And if the animal can spend most of the day outside, that will cut way down on the hair and dander exposure.

‘Unconditional love’
Resnick says the only time he really pushes patients to find a new home for a pet is when a severe case of asthma is involved. Even then, most patients opt to tough it out.

8 tips to control your pet allergiesFor years that’s been the case with Maureen Devine. Every time Devine goes in to see her allergist, he asks the same question: “Have you gotten rid of those cats yet?”  Her response: “You can keep bugging me, but that’s not going to happen.”

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Devine knew she was allergic when she brought the two abandoned kittens home.  “I made a commitment when I took them in,” says the 29-year-old administrative assistant from Glen Olden, Pa. “I’m going to keep them till they die.”

For Devine, there’s something calming about the sight of the chubby gray-and-white striped Zeb cuddling up with his orange tabby buddy, June, at the foot of her bed. She’d feel lonely without the feline pair. “They’re really good cats,” she says. “June follows me around and sits next to me when I cook. Zeb is always ready to play with his string.”

Devine’s allergist, Dr. S. Michael Phillips, takes a more proactive approach when he thinks a patient is highly allergic. A really bad reaction can kick off an asthma attack and, in rare cases, even kill the owner, says Phillips, director of allergy programs at the University of Pennsylvania. Even with that warning, Phillips says, “it’s a rare patient who is willing to give up their animal — they will try everything else first.”

An allergic partner or spouse can lead to a tough choice for a pet owner. Ultimately, Resnik says, “a woman will choose to get rid of a husband who’s allergic rather than get rid of the cat. The cat gives unconditional love.”

Even when there’s no choice to be made, pets can make life complicated when allergies are involved. Rande Harris of Sunnyvale, Calif., has become desensitized to her cat’s dander over the years, but her daughter and son-in-law start wheezing and sneezing anytime they get near Peaches. That means Harris can’t have her daughters over for a family dinner and suffers when she goes to their houses.

“They both have dogs,” explains the 56-year-old paralegal, whose dog allergies can make her miserable. “So I end up going there and coughing and sneezing my way through dinner.”

Still, Harris says, there’s no way she’d give up her cat. “My husband works nights,” she says. “Peaches sleeps at the foot of my bed and keeps me company.”

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