Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 7.30.2009

Eugene Weeklys Pets 2009

Thinking About Getting a Pet? Adopt.

No Dogs Allowed It’s not easy to rent with pets

How Now, Pet Cow? Miniature cattle aren’t just for eating 

Saving Sick Pets Local groups raise funds for pet medical bills 

From El Diablo to El Ángelito? Did the Dog Whisperer tame the wild Chihuahua?

Ask the Dogcatcher LCAS’s Kylie B. answers all your dog and cat questions

Too Much of a Good Thing What do shelters do with pregnant strays?

Something Not to Sneeze At Is there really such a thing as a hypoallergenic pet?


Something Not to Sneeze At
Is there really such a thing as a hypoallergenic pet?
By Krista Harper

When President Obama promised his daughters a dog in his acceptance speech, he sparked a media flurry for months. What would they name it? What breed would it be? The president’s eldest daughter, Malia, is allergic to dogs, so the family was on a hunt for a “hypoallergenic” breed. As most of us know, they settled on a Portuguese water dog, a breed widely assumed to be less allergenic than other dogs.

But after all of that kerfuffle, is the new presidential canine really any more hypoallergenic than, say, a lab? 

People are allergic to dogs, cats and other furry pets because the animals carry allergens — substances that produce an exaggerated reaction in the immune system of certain individuals. The main dog and cat allergens are found in saliva and dander, but some allergy sufferers are allergic to animal urine, feces or blood.

Local allergist Dr. Candice Rohr says that studies of dog allergens by breed have been inconclusive. Over several studies, Portuguese water dogs, poodles and other so-called hypoallergenic dogs were shown to carry moderate to low allergens. Labs, on the other hand, turned out to be the most allergenic dog in one study, while in another, they were the least allergenic. 

Rohr says that her own clinical experience shows that grooming might play the biggest role in determining what dogs have traditionally been considered hypoallergenic. Poodles and Portuguese water dogs are breeds that are usually groomed regularly, which cuts down on allergens tremendously. Lab owners are less likely to bathe their dogs frequently, according to Rorh, so their pets may carry more allergens.

Though Rohr hasn’t seen any studies on the matter, she says that cat allergens could also probably be reduced by bathing. That would probably only work with a cat raised with baths from a young age, though, she says. “If you start doing it to a 14-year-old cat, you’d be mauled to death,” she says.

Coat also plays a factor in the allergens produced by an animal, Rohr says. Pets with two layers of fur, like Persian cats or huskies, are actually generally less allergenic than other cats or dogs, she says. The extra layer keeps dander close to the animals’ skin and out of the air. 

Hairless cats may cause fewer allergies, too, because they may not need to groom themselves as much. Since saliva is a significant allergen, the less a cat grooms itself, the better for the allergic owner, says Rohr. Some of her patients complain that they are most allergic to kittens, which she says is probably because mother cats lick their babies continuously. Hairless dogs may be more allergy-friendly, too, Rohr says — maybe because they are easier to keep clean.

The biggest factor in pet allergies, however, is personal. People are more allergic or less allergic to an animal depending on their sensitivities, Rohr says. One puppy can be more tolerable to a person than the others in the same litter. The same puppy could be bad news for someone else, while the others in the litter might not bother the second person at all. This can render arguments about breed moot — allergies just depend on the pet and the person.

Of course, people can be allergic to other animals, too. Reptiles are fine, but all furry critters — hamsters, horses, rabbits — can be problematic. Unlike the hazy differences between cat and dog breeds, different types of birds can be considered more allergenic, Rohr says. Bird excrement is the source of the allergy, and cockatiels and parrots seem to be the worst offenders, she says. 

Rohr says people should be very careful when buying animals that are advertised to be hypoallergenic. She says that there have been no studies yet on whether popular new “hypoallergenic” mixed breeds, like Labradoodles, are truly better for allergy sufferers. “Ask the breeder, ‘How are you showing that this dog or cat is creating less allergen?’” Rohr says. The truth is that no cat or dog is truly hypoallergenic, she adds, since they all produce saliva and dander.

Good luck, Malia.