[I wrote this last year and e-mailed it to myself in order to have a full-length, non-political piece ready to post on a day like this one...]
Some time ago (January 9, 2013), the Kingsport Times-News printed a letter to an advice column reporting an allergy issue: Someone “has a poodle,and she has not had any allergy symptoms...She just bought another poodle and is highly allergic tothis dog. Why is she allergic to one and not the other when they are the same breed?”
The columnist replied, “The issue...probably has little to do with dog allergies...I have seen so many animals that were put up for adoption because a human... started to sneeze or cough out of the blue and the pet got the blame without the human member of the family seeking a doctor’s advice.”
I’ll go further than that and suggest that the most likely explanation is that this person is allergic to some chemical the kennel used to control fleas, and will stop being allergic to the new dog as soon as its coat has been completely shed and replaced. However, there are other possibilities. So read on.
When I was very young, we spent one summer in a swamp. The moldy basement had been freshly sprayed with chlordane, which was legal in the United States at the time, to kill roaches; across the street, other deadly poisons were regularly sprayed on the ground to control grass. The house was roach-free and looked appealing but within ten hours after going inside I developed asthma. I had asthma all summer.
I had never had asthma before. What could be causing it? The popular wisdom of the time said, “Food, pollen, and animal ‘dander’ trigger asthma.” I was eating the same kind of food I’d been eating all my life. The only animals at the house in the swamp were slugs, which don’t produce “dander.”. The local plant life was nothing new, either. Maybe we were closer to some flower to which I hadn’t been exposed enough to trigger an attack before. My parents looked at the new neighbors’ gardens. Aha! Jane Doe had a magnolia tree. Magnolias are related to gardenias. I’d never had asthma before but I had once sniffed a gardenia and sneezed for several minutes, as an infant.
One of Mother’s friends had sent home a magnolia blossom, another summer. We’d kept it in the house for a day or two. It hadn’t bothered me. “I don’t think I’m allergic to magnolias,” I wheezed.
“Let’s go and find out,” Mother said, marching me to the Does’ front garden. “Go and sniff that big blossom right there.”
So I sniffed it, and I sneezed. Of course, it felt to me that if I’d taken a good sniff at anything, the way my nose felt, I would have sneezed.
Anyway, the adults in my life wanted my allergy trigger to be magnolia pollen. That was a simple solution. It meant I could spend the summer at home, and then live in the house in the swamp during the school term when the magnolia tree would stop blooming, and not have asthma.
This solution would have been so nice from the adults’ point of view that it’s really a pity that it didn’t work. We lived in the house in the swamp until February. Every afternoon my nose started to clog up around 4 or 5 p.m. On school days my nose stopped running around 9:30 a.m. On weekends, if we went home I was fine, and if we stayed in the house in the swamp my nose ran all day. Nobody had any further theories to explain why.
Of course, we now know that although allergies often seem to be triggered by food, pollen, and animal “dander,” and although a person plagued with allergies may seem to react to dozens or hundreds of substances in those categories, the primary causes of allergies are likely to be mold and chemical pollutants.
I am not and have never been allergic to magnolia pollen—which was fortunate a few years later, when that sex-segregated dormitory my parents insisted on, at that church college, turned out to have big magnolia trees growing right up against the windows. Not a sniffle. I am mildly allergic to mold. I am extremely allergic to the poison sprays lazy people use to kill weeds and roaches. (I’m also allergic to marijuana...how common is that, and does it have anything to do with the slang words for marijuana?)
The U.S. government finally wised up about chlordane, which can no longer be legally sold in this country. While living in the swamp I tested positive for the usual three or four dozen minor food allergies, but “outgrew” all those allergies (except gluten and casein intolerance, as distinct from allergies) as people used up their existing supplies of chlordane. I no longer have asthma. What professional exterminators are now most likely to spray for roaches are powders; the active ingredient is borax, which may or may not be cut with cornstarch or sugar. None of these substances bothers me at all, so it’s no longer likely that an exterminator’s visit might kill me. But it’s still possible that an all-out attack on garden weeds might.
What about pets? The group of young people collectively known as The Nephews have been forced to live without a cat—oh, the cruelty of traps! oh, the stench of dead vermin in walls!—because one little rotten-apple-in-the-barrel appeared to be allergic to cats. They weren’t allowed to get out of the car while waiting outside their aunt’s home, either, for that reason. Turns out my allergy-prone nephew is gluten-intolerant, like his sister, his aunt, his grandmother, his great-aunt, his great-grandmother, and so on all the way back into the mists of Irish history. When his diet was corrected, he stopped having serious reactions to cats. One day when he’s old enough that this test can’t be made into a custody issue, I’m going to invite him to sit down on my front porch and pet a cat. Probably he won’t even sneeze.
When I was a child, my parents thought it was ecologically correct not to keep a cat. (In an orchard, this is known as Good Mousekeeping.) I bonded with my aunt’s cats when we visited her in Florida. Mother thought I might be mildly allergic to cats, but it was hard to tell, because I was severely allergic to Florida. At college, after the first year in the dorm with the magnolias, I moved into a boarding house that had cats and dogs. No problem. I bonded with all four animals, especially the younger cat; I wasn’t really keen on the older cat’s habit of plopping down on top of sleeping humans in the middle of the night, but neither did it bother me...until one day in spring. Suddenly petting the cats made me sneeze. It wasn’t the cats, of course; it was their brand-new flea collars. Still, even after the flea collars had been removed, I couldn’t sleep if the cats had been in the room for another month or two, and then I was still likely to sneeze or itch if I petted their fur, all summer long.
Occasionally I still see hives forming where cat hair has stuck to my skin on a damp day, or sneeze while grooming a shedding cat. In the case of Cat Sanctuary cats, it’s definitely not because they’ve been wearing flea collars. The need for flea treatments is greatly reduced when (a) cats are mostly outdoors and (b) things on which they sit or nap often are washed every few weeks and (c) the floor under their favorite cushions on the porch, and under any nest boxes they accept for kittens, is dusted with borax. When I’ve used flea powder, which has been seldom, I’ve been able to find borax-based formulas that don’t seem to bother the cats or me. I know that if I have an allergic reaction to a cat’s hair, it’s because the cat has picked up a few mold spores or a bit of that irritating oil in poison ivy. I know that another hair shed by the same cat, another day, probably won’t be an allergy trigger. I wash hairs off me, vacuum them out of the house if necessary, and cover up when I’m outdoors.
If you definitely have allergy reactions to one animal and not to another animal of the same kind, you are probably reacting to some other allergy trigger that can be carried by an animal. Mold, pesticides, and soaps or flea treatments are likely to cause respiratory symptoms. Some pesticides are designed to soak into an animal’s fur and make the animal an allergy trigger for a good long time, but eventually your new pet will stop triggering your allergies. If someone else is willing to bathe your new pet and comb or trim its fur, that may help speed the process.
In another scenario that some allergists think may be common, the animal doesn’t cause allergies but may dramatically aggravate them. Most animals mark their territory with body secretions, which contain urea. Stachybotrys mold grows on most organic and some inorganic substances, but it grows much, much faster on anything that harbors traces of urea. Stachybotrys mold has been miscalled “toxic” because it’s more likely to trigger more serious reactions than other fungi...and so, while you’re not really allergic to your pet at all, you may find yourself feeling allergic to everything and generally miserable, because you’re allergic to the consequences of not scrubbing away every trace of your pet’s presence in the house. After scrubbing everything, dehumidifying your home, and moving your pet outdoors, you and your pet can live happily ever after.
Yet another common situation is the one where the allergy sufferer is really reacting so violently to a polluted environment, food s/he can’t tolerate, etc., that the person temporarily seems “allergic to everything.” In this case, although the problem is definitely not “just in the patient’s mind,” there is a psychological component to the patient’s reactions. The more stressed, angry, or depressed the person feels, the higher the level of exposure to the real cause of the problem, and the more intensely the person will seem to react to something s/he might otherwise be able to tolerate. If the predominant allergy reaction is asthma, sniffing anything at all may cause sneezing and wheezing. If it’s hives or skin rashes, prolonged contact with anything at all may make the rash break out. This patient is reacting at least partly to something that’s already inside his or her body, and anything at all can aggravate that reaction. You have to feel sorry for this person, who is obviously miserable, and it is a good idea for that person to separate himself or herself from anything that appears to be a trigger...but don’t send the animal to a shelter! Once the poison has worked its way out of the system, this person will no longer have allergies to harmless, natural things like animals or flowers.
A situation that’s not common, because it’s so obvious, but I have seen it develop, occurs when animal “dander” in the home reaches levels at which it becomes a mechanical irritant. Everybody coughs when they inhale enough dust to block the intake of air. Everybody itches when they walk around covered in dust. In houses where pets have been lounging on cushioned furniture and carpets for years, any time anything stirs up the thick layer of “dander,” anyone who’s in the room is likely to have these “symptoms,” and full-time residents of the house may even get prescription medication to treat the chronic irritation caused by living in...well, at that point, it has to be called filth. Humans shed “dander” too, more of it than smaller animals do, so decaying human skin and hair may be more to blame than animal skin and hair. These people aren’t allergic to animals as such; they are sick because they live in a sick, dirty environment. Cleaning is the cure.
And there are probably lots of other, less common situations, not mentioned here, some of which a good allergist might be able to recognize if anybody out there happens to be in one of them. It’s definitely worth consulting an allergist before you abandon an animal.