As a dog allergy sufferer who has nonetheless met many dogs as a trainer, groomer and owner, Candice has learned not to trust the promise of a “hypoallergenic” dog. She’s met little shedding, hypoallergenic Poodles and Portuguese Water Dogs that aren’t supposed to trigger their allergies, but very often have. But she’s also encountered fluffy, long-haired breeds like huskies and spitz that hardly ever trigger a sneeze. “I’ve had more trouble with short-haired dogs,” she told me. This includes her own Belgian Malinois, Fiore, whose symptoms got so bad she started allergy shots. But Fiore’s equally furry full sister Fernando? Absolutely OK. No reaction!
Candice — whose last name I won’t use for medical reasons — isn’t the only one who can’t figure out a rhyme or reason for which dogs she’s allergic to. In study, Scientists have found no difference in the amount of the dog allergen Can f 1 in households with hypoallergenic and non-hypoallergenic breeds. A study found no difference also in the amount of allergens on the fur of different dogs. Another actually found more allergen on the fur of hypoallergenic breeds. Hypoallergenic doesn’t seem to mean much at all.
“There really is no such thing as a 100 percent hypoallergenic dog. Even hairless dogs can produce the allergen,” says John James, a spokesman for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. “It’s actually a marketing term,” says David Stukus, an allergist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and a member of the AAFA’s Medical Scientific Council. When I asked several allergists across the country if clueless owners were ever allergic to their expensive, supposedly hypoallergenic dog, their replies were unequivocal: “All the time.” Indeed, one of the biggest sources of misinformation on this subject is a former US President . “When President Obama was in office, they supposedly had a hypoallergenic dog because their daughter had allergies, and that didn’t help,” Stukus told me, referring to the Obamas’ first Portuguese water dog, Bo. “Everyone has Portuguese water dogs.” And — surprise — they can still cause allergies.
Technically, hypoallergenic means that a dog is less likely to cause allergies, not that it never causes allergies, although this distinction is often lost in colloquial usage. But even then, there is no such thing as a consistently hypoallergenic breed. Although breeds that shed less fur or hair are commonly considered hypoallergenic, it is not the fur or hair itself that causes allergies. Rather, they are proteins that are present in the dander or small dander or saliva. All dogs make these proteins, and all dogs have skin and saliva.
However, it is true that a person might find one dog less allergenic than another. The studies, which failed to find a clear pattern of lower allergens in hypoallergenic breeds, found differences between individual dogs same breed. And a smaller dog will generally shed less dander than a larger one. From size alone, “it makes sense that a Chihuahua would be less of a problem than a Great Dane,” says Richard Lockey, an allergist at the University of South Florida. Dogs also make a variety of proteins that can trigger allergies. The best known is Can f 1, although there are some seven others. Some people may be more allergic to one of these proteins than others; Some dogs can produce more of one of these proteins than another. Whether a particular person will actually become allergic to a particular dog depends on these details—and cannot be predicted from breed alone. For this reason, doctors recommend that anyone with allergies spend time with a specific dog before bringing them home. “I’m literally saying, ‘Let your kid hug them, rub their face on it.’ If nothing happens, that’s a good sign,” said Stukus.
Even allergy sufferers can develop a tolerance to a particular dog over time. Candice, for example, eventually developed a tolerance for her German shepherd mix, Tesla, although initially she cried and sneezed profusely. In addition, allergy shots, also called immunotherapy, can help people build tolerance by gradually increasing exposure to an allergen. Candice eventually resorted to her with Fiore. The reversal of this principle explains the Thanksgiving Effectwhere people leaving college suddenly develop an allergic reaction to their childhood pet after not being exposed to it for a long time.
Nasal sprays containing steroids and antihistamines such as Claritin and Allegra, which are available over the counter, can also be used to treat allergies these days. It wasn’t always like this, recalls Lockey, who began practicing medicine in the 1960s. Back then, there weren’t any good medicines to fight allergies, and he simply advised patients to keep their pets outdoors. “It just doesn’t work anymore,” he told me. Today, especially in cities, only a few dogs are kept exclusively outdoors. They sleep in our houses and even in our beds. Because dogs are physically enmeshed in our lives, dog allergies are no more easily ignored than when the animals lived outside.
However, the myth of an allergy-free dog lingers, and Stukus often sees this frustration in families with allergic children. “That’s the point I keep hearing from families: It’s the grandparents,” he told me. Parents could quickly discover that their children are allergic to “hypoallergenic” dogs. But grandparents, eager to see their grandkids, back down because their expensive pet is said to be hypoallergenic – “The Obamas had the same dog. It’s okay!” – only to make the kids end up coughing and feeling miserable. He hears the same complaint over and over again. “They just don’t understand,” the parents tell him, “that there are no hypoallergenic dogs.”