Can I Have a Pet if I Have Asthma?

Learn how adopting a four-legged friend could affect your health.

woman hugging dog

If you have asthma, you may gladly steer clear of triggers like cigarette smoke and perfume to avoid a worrisome flare-up of your symptoms. But being around dogs, cats, and other furry or feathered pets could also trigger an asthma attack.

The good news for animal lovers: You may not be forced to choose between your health and your four-legged friend. Some people with asthma can have both.

Before you decide to buy or adopt a pet, however, it’s important to weigh the risks and benefits with your healthcare provider (HCP). It’s also helpful to understand how your asthma may be affected by the animal you choose and what you can do to minimize your risk for a flare-up, says Matt Morgan, MD, an allergist and immunologist in McKinney, Texas.

Links between pet allergies and asthma

For some people, the same allergens that can lead to a stuffy nose, itchy eyes, and other allergy symptoms can also trigger asthma attacks. This type of asthma, known as allergic asthma—triggered by things like mold, pollen, and furry animals—is actually the most common form of the condition.

Up to 30 percent of people with asthma are also allergic to pets, like cats and dogs. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of households in the United States have pets, and most of these animals are furry, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI).

“Pet exposure and asthma can definitely go hand in hand,” Dr. Morgan says. “If someone has asthma and a pet allergy, pets can be a really potent trigger of the asthma.”

Animals that have fur or hair—such as dogs and cats, as well as horses and rodents—can trigger an immune system response in some people that causes their airway and lungs to become inflamed and swollen, leading to asthma symptoms, such as trouble breathing, wheezing, and chest tightness. Most cases of pet allergy-induced asthma involve mammals, Morgan explains. But for some people, exposure to birds is also risky since they may collect dust and mites and could potentially trigger an asthma attack.

It’s important to understand, however, that if you’re allergic to pets and you have asthma, choosing a non-shedding, short-haired, hairless, or so-called hypoallergenic breed of dog or cat isn’t a guarantee that you’ll avoid flare-ups.

The hype about hypoallergenic pets

Many dog breeds are touted as allergen-free, including Labradoodles, Poodles, and Spanish Waterdogs. But contrary to popular belief, there’s no such thing as a “hypoallergenic” pet. That’s because pet allergies and asthma aren’t just about hair and fur.

Even animals that don’t shed produce dander, which can worsen your symptoms. Pet dander is made up of tiny flecks of skin shed by animals with fur or feathers. Moreover, proteins found in animals’ saliva, urine, and feces could also trigger an allergic reaction or asthma attack.

Even if you’re careful and avoid being “kissed” by a slobbering pooch, dried saliva or droppings can flake off an animal’s coat and linger in the air you breathe, triggering a reaction. Unlike pet dandruff, which is visible to the naked eye, pet dander is usually microscopic. You might not be able to see these particles, but they can stick to rugs, furniture, bedding, and items that come in and out of your home, like shoes, gloves, and jackets.

If you have asthma that’s triggered by pet allergens, exposure to dander can worsen your symptoms and make it harder for your lungs to function properly.

Some people may only be allergic to pet dander or just the animal’s saliva, urine, or droppings, while others may be allergic to all of these allergens. The bottom line, says Morgan: “Nobody should market pets as being hypoallergenic.”

All pets are different

No two animals are exactly alike. “Pets are like individual people,” Morgan says. “Some pets will work out just fine, and other ones will not.” Even animals that are the same breed may produce different amounts of asthma-triggering allergens.

That said, some pets tend to be riskier for people with asthma, notes Morgan.

For example, cats are usually more allergenic than dogs. In fact, exposure to a cat triggers a severe asthma attack in up to 30 percent of people with asthma. Sex also matters. Male cats have more testosterone, a hormone that enhances the production of allergens, Morgan explains. Female cats and neutered male cats may therefore be less likely to trigger an allergic reaction or asthma attack than unneutered males.

Other factors to consider

The concentrations of a particular allergen that trigger an allergic reaction or asthma attack can vary dramatically from one person to the next. Whether or not you can comfortably have a pet at home or be around horses or other animals with hair or fur may also depend on your sensitivity, explains Morgan.

There are effective medications for allergies to pet dander, but immunotherapy (also known as allergy shots) might not cover allergies to the proteins found in pet saliva, urine, and droppings, Morgan says. “That is one gap in our treatments.”

Asthma and allergy symptoms can also change over time. Even if you have a mild pet allergy today, you could experience a more serious reaction and asthma attack down the road, Morgan cautions. “One person who is mildly allergic to cats may suddenly become very allergic to cats,” he says. “That severity can fluctuate with time in the same person.”

What does this mean for you?

If you have asthma and you are wondering if you can comfortably be around pets, the first step is to confirm that you really are allergic to animals. Pollen, mold spores, and other outdoor allergens can stick to pet hair or fur. These may be the real causes of your reactions, rather than pet allergens.

An allergist can use blood or skin tests to identify your asthma triggers and confirm if you are actually allergic to pets.

If your test results show that you do have pet allergies, the most effective way to prevent an asthma attack is to avoid exposure entirely. That would mean not having a pet or removing one from your home. Unfortunately, confining pets to certain rooms in your home won’t protect you from exposure to their allergens. These tiny particles stick to surfaces, spread in the air, and can be carried from one room to the next. Pet allergens can linger for months after an animal leaves and your home has been carefully cleaned.

If complete avoidance isn’t an option and you will be exposed to pets with fur, hair, or feathers, talk to your HCP about what you can do to ease your symptoms and either prevent or manage asthma attacks.

There are treatments that can help control an allergy to pet dander, including immunotherapy. These injections work by exposing you to small amounts of an allergen to help you develop a tolerance to it. The medications you’re taking to control your asthma could also help protect you against a reaction to pet allergens, Morgan notes.

Additionally, your HCP may recommend that you use a peak flow meter to measure how much air you can breathe out.

It’s also important to test your response to a particular animal before you commit to buy or adopt it as a pet, Morgan advises. “If you can, bring it into your environment for a week or so and just see what happens,” he says. Doing so could help predict your longer-term response to the pet.

Some other tips that could help reduce your exposure to pet allergens at home:

  • Keep pets out of your bedroom—the place where you spend much of your time at home.
  • Wash dogs twice per week. Bathing cats once per week could also help.
  • Do not allow pets to climb onto furniture, especially upholstered sofas and chairs.
  • Sweep, dust, and vacuum often with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter.
  • Use a portable room or whole-house HEPA air purifier.
  • Routinely clean walls and woodwork.
  • Replace drapes with window blinds.
  • Wherever possible, remove carpeting and rugs.
  • Minimize contact with your pets’ saliva and fur.
  • Change your clothes after having contact with a pet.
  • If pets travel in your car, cover your seats and wash them often.

Don’t ignore warning signs

A severe asthma attack could be life-threatening. If you have allergic asthma and you choose to have a pet at home, an allergist can not only establish a treatment plan designed to prevent these flare-ups but also create an emergency action plan that outlines exactly what you should do if your symptoms worsen or you develop the following serious warning signs:

  • Trouble breathing, chest tightness, or wheezing that worsens rapidly and doesn’t improve with the use of quick-relief medication, such as albuterol, which can be taken through a handheld inhaler or a nebulizer
  • Shortness of breath during light physical activity
  • Your lips or fingernails turn blue

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