How to Love Your Pet—and Live Better with Allergic Asthma

Follow these tips to breathe easy at home, even if you’re allergic to your pet.

A young Black girl sits on a couch, blowing her nose. Beside her sits a shaggy dog.

Updated on January 24, 2024.

Roughly 70 percent of households in the United States are home to a pet, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Meanwhile, of the nearly 27 million people in the U.S. with asthma, between 20 to 30 percent are prone to severe symptoms when exposed to pet allergens.

Cats and dogs are the most common pets in the U.S.—and the most common sources of pet allergies. But other animals like birds, horses, rabbits, and ferrets can produce allergens. (Allergens are substances that cause allergic reactions and allergic asthma is a type of asthma triggered by inhaled allergens.)

Whether your pet has fur, feathers, or scales, follow these tips to help manage your exposure to their allergens so you can live better if you have allergic asthma.

Know what you’re allergic to

Have your asthma symptoms worsened since you brought a pet into your life? It’s important first to confirm whether your symptoms are truly animal-related or due to other factors.

Pet allergens that can cause asthma symptoms include saliva, urine, and dander (tiny skin particles that are invisible to the eye). Some people may be allergic to the hay that their rabbits or guinea pigs eat. In other cases, substances that your pet is exposed to can be the source of allergies. This includes dust or pollen that gets trapped in the animal’s fur, bedding, or living space.

Start by seeing a healthcare provider (HCP) to discuss allergy and asthma testing, advises Gerald Lee, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. “If you have a lung condition like asthma, it’s important to know what makes your condition worse and what makes it better beyond taking medicine,” he says. “What you’re bringing into your lungs on a daily basis is going to directly affect how you feel.”

Many primary care providers can perform simple allergy testing in their office by using a blood sample. For more thorough testing, you may be referred to see an allergy or asthma specialist for a skin test. This involves placing tiny amounts of common allergens on your skin. If your skin reacts, such as by changing color or becoming itchy or swollen, it means you’re allergic to the substance.    

Once you know what you’re allergic to, you and your HCP can create a personalized asthma and allergy plan. If you’re considering adopting a pet (more on this below), this plan can help you determine which animal or breed might be most appropriate for you.

If you’re allergic to a pet that already lives in your home, the basics of treatment are three-fold, Lee explains: avoiding allergens, taking medication, and getting allergy shots.

Avoid allergens

“For avoidance, our general rule is to minimize exposure to the pet as much as possible,” Dr. Lee says. “What you choose to do should depend on conversations with your allergist and veterinarian.” Steps to take often include the following:

Set aside animal-free areas of the home

Try to limit your pet’s access to certain sections of the home and/or keep them out of your sleeping area by using doors and gates. Doing so can offer a “mostly safe” zone for asthma relief, especially when combined with the use of air purifiers to help remove allergens that may still circulate through the air. Depending on the animal, you might also consider providing a safe, temperature-controlled outdoor shelter for your pet.

Filter your air

Run portable or stand-alone HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) air purifiers throughout your home, especially in rooms where you spend a lot of time. If you can’t afford to buy a new one, it’s fairly simple and low-cost to make an air purifier at home. It may cost roughly $30 to $40 to buy the items (like a box fan and filters) you need for a DIY version. Follow these tips for building an air purifier from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Minimize the use of fabrics

As much as possible, limit your use of carpeting, rugs, fabric-covered furniture, and cloth curtains. All of these can collect dust and pet allergens. If you do opt for fabrics, choose rugs and coverings that can be removed easily and washed weekly.

Use a HEPA-filter vacuum and wet-dust every week  

A HEPA filter vacuum should be used to clean floors and fabric furniture at least weekly. These powerful vacuums are available at most major retailers, starting at around $40. Choose a HEPA-filter vacuum that uses disposable bags and be sure to clean or replace the filter regularly, according to product instructions. 

Your cleaning routine should include wet dusting, using a wet rag to wipe down any surfaces that collect fur, dust, and/or dander at least weekly. Wet dusting collects particles more effectively than dry dusting, which merely spreads them around your home.

Skip litter-box duty

If your pet uses a litter box or lives in a tank or cage, keep their spaces away from areas where you sleep or spend a lot of time. If possible, ask another person in your home to clean these spaces to help you avoid exposure to allergens.

Groom often

Some cats and dogs should be washed weekly and brushed often, preferably outside the home. Specific recommendations will vary based on your pet’s breed and whether they’re an indoor or outdoor pet. Your veterinarian can help you decide on a healthy bathing schedule. Ideally, another person or a professional would bathe your pet for you. (If bath time with a cat sounds frightening, the ASPCA offers tips on feline bathing.)

The severity of your condition will guide how strict you need to be with these steps. Work with your HCP and veterinarian to create a plan that’s right for your home, your health needs, and your pet’s welfare.

Take medication

“When it comes to the second piece of allergy and asthma care—medications—you may need to be on meds continuously since you’re always going to be breathing in the pet allergen,” explains Lee.

Medications can include pills, inhaled medicines, and/or injections. Your asthma medication regimen will depend on your symptoms, allergens, and the spaces where you spend time, among other factors. Your routine may focus on treating your allergies, your asthma, or both.

Consider getting allergy shots

Since allergies make asthma worse, the third piece of allergic asthma management often involves allergy shots (also known as immunotherapy or desensitization). Allergy shots work by exposing you to small amounts of substances you’re allergic to. Each time you’re exposed, your immune system builds tolerance, getting more used to the substance. That reduces your risk of serious allergic reactions over time.  

“If that’s the case, you may not need as many medications,” says Lee. Note that allergy shots require a time commitment (you may need to get them every week) and may not be appropriate for everyone.

Get outdoors and stay active with your pet

Ideally, your asthma plan will help you enjoy your pet and all the ways they can help you live a healthier, happier life. Research suggests that spending time with a pet may help you:

  • Ease depression and anxiety symptoms
  • Move more and spend time outdoors
  • Meet other pet parents, which can reduce loneliness
  • Protect against stress-related conditions like high blood pressure

There are a variety of activities that you and your pet can enjoy together, such as hiking, playing fetch, and attending pet meetups. Even people with outdoor and exercise-related asthma can benefit from moving more and spending time outdoors. Regular physical activity can even help improve asthma symptoms over time. With the right planning, an active pet lifestyle can boost your health and keep your pet happy, too.

Ask your allergy and asthma specialist if you need to take any asthma medications (called pre-medicating) before outdoor activities or exercise.

Be careful when considering adoption

Many of the issues you’d encounter when living with a pet also come into play when bringing a new animal home. But before adopting a pet, there are a few other considerations to keep in mind.

Understand your allergens

For starters, you need to know the specific animal substances you’re allergic to so you can avoid breathing them in, says Lee: “You may be surprised to find you’re allergic to cats but not to certain types of dogs, in which case you would be okay to adopt a dog.”

It’s also important to be wary of the promise of “hypoallergenic” pets. Certain types of dogs and cats (often exotic, expensive breeds) may be advertised as being safe for people with allergies and asthma. But those promises don’t always deliver.

“People say there are hypoallergenic breeds,” says Lee, “and yes, some breeds do shed less fur. But animal allergies are about more than shedding.” Even animals that don’t shed fur still produce dander. And you probably don’t need reminding that pets of all breeds slobber, lick, pee, and poo—any of which can cause allergies.

Allergy testing can guide your decision-making. If testing reveals you’re allergic to fur, a less-shedding breed might make sense for you. If it shows you’re allergic to pet saliva, you’ll have to focus on finding a friend who isn’t too slobbery.

Remember each animal is unique

It may be tempting to choose a companion based on a cute bio or photos you saw online. Just remember that each animal is an individual. Even those of the same breed can produce different types and amounts of allergens.

Spend time with your new buddy before bringing them home for good. If possible, ask the adoption agency if you can have a trial week together to see how they affect your asthma symptoms. If that’s not an option, aim to have at least several meetings and a home visit before moving in together.

An animal’s sex also matters. “Interestingly, some people are only allergic to male proteins,” says Lee. “We can do something called component testing to see if you would do better with a female or neutered pet.”

When you’re ready to adopt, the Humane Society of the United States has guidance on how to find local shelters, rescues, and responsible breeders.

Some people may need to re-home their pet

Even after taking every precaution, some people with severe asthma may need to find another loving home for their pet. For many people, pets are best friends and family members, and this can be a profound loss. If you find yourself in this situation, Rainbows Bridge provides a list of local and regional helplines for people experiencing pet loss.

Never abandon your pet, even if you’re no longer able to live with them. There are people and organizations ready and waiting to love them for you.

Not sure what to do? The Animal Humane Society offers advice on how to re-home your pet, whether on your own or by working with their staff. You may also be able to find a foster group to watch your pet temporarily until your health condition and/or living situation change. 

The Animal Humane Society also has a Pet Helpline for questions you may have, including more tips for how to live healthy with asthma and a pet.

This article has been written in collaboration with the Center for Children’s Health Assessment, Research Translation, and Combating Environmental Racism (CHARTER) at Emory University. CHARTER works to develop strategies to translate research findings on children’s environmental health for stakeholders in the community, academia, and health care with the goal of improving children’s health.

Read more from this series on asthma in children, ways to protect your children from asthma at school, best practices for keeping your home free of allergens and asthma triggers, and the ways in which stress and asthma are connected.

Article sources open article sources

American Academy of Pediatrics. When Pets Are the Problem. Last Updated April 6, 2021.
American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Pet Allergies. Reviewed April 23, 2018.
American Lung Association. Does Exposure to Pest and Pet Allergens Reduce Child’s Asthma Risk. May 13, 2018.
American Lung Association. Being Active with Asthma. Page last updated: November 28, 2022.
American Lung Association. What is Pet Dander? Page last updated: November 2, 2023.
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Pet Allergy. Medical Review: June 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Asthma Action Plans. Last Reviewed: June 23, 2023.
Gergen PJ, Mitchell HE, Calatroni A, et al. Sensitization and Exposure to Pets: The Effect on Asthma Morbidity in the US Population. J Allergy Clin Immunol Pract. 2018;6(1):101-107.e2.
Hodgson K, Barton L, Darling M, Antao V, Kim FA, Monavvari A. Pets' Impact on Your Patients' Health: Leveraging Benefits and Mitigating Risk. J Am Board Fam Med. 2015;28(4):526-534.
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Pet Allergens. Last Reviewed: August 29, 2022.
Nemours Teens Health. If I Have Asthma, Can I Keep My Pet? Date reviewed: May 2017.
Panagiotou M, Koulouris NG, Rovina N. Physical Activity: A Missing Link in Asthma Care. J Clin Med. 2020;9(3):706. Published 2020 Mar 5.
The Humane Society of the United States. Adopting pets from animal shelters or rescues. Accessed on November 30, 2023.
The Humane Society of the United States. How to live with allergies and pets. Accessed November 30, 2023.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. Asthma Triggers: Gain Control. Last Updated on May 1, 2023.
Westgarth C, Christley RM, Jewell C, German AJ, Boddy LM, Christian HE. Dog owners are more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than people without a dog: An investigation of the association between dog ownership and physical activity levels in a UK community. Sci Rep. 2019;9(1):5704. Published 2019 Apr 18.

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