Emergency Care For You

Cats, Dogs and Dander....Oh My!

Lorrie Metzler-Szabo, MD, FACEP
is an emergency physician based in California

Do you have pet allergies? Perhaps you have had to visit relatives with pets, or fly on an airline that allows pets on the plane? Maybe you love animals, but you are very allergic to cats and dogs?

There are steps you can take to protect yourself, and there are symptoms you can recognize to prevent an emergency. Go to the nearest emergency room if you experience trouble breathing or other severe symptoms. 

What are some of the presenting symptoms of pet allergies?

Be on the lookout for uncharacteristically itchy runny nose and eyes, nasal congestion or sneezing. You also might experience swollen eyes or intense skin itching with welts. A persistent cough, wheezing and the start of asthma symptoms can occur. You could become short of breath, experience your throat closing or symptoms associated with elevated anxiety. In the most severe cases, respiratory issues can be potentially life threatening and you should seek emergency medical attention immediately.

I am visiting family out of town this fall and they have a cat and a dog. What preventive measures can I take to spend the weekend with my family in comfort?

What a tough situation! You love your family and really love animals. You certainly don't want to offend anyone. Short of staying in a hotel, if your allergies are not too severe, you can alleviate your symptoms by taking precautions ahead of your visit.

Make sure your family or friends understand that you need their help. Ask them to brush and wash the pet(s) prior to your visit. Request that the room you are occupying gets cleaned thoroughly prior to your arrival.

Ask your hosts if you could stay in a room that the animal does not frequently occupy, without carpet, if possible. Make sure you have your prescription or non-prescription medications with you. Oral non-drowsy antihistamines or steroid nasal sprays are recommended. HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters have also proven to be very helpful.

Oh, no! I'm going to be on a plane for hours and there will be an animal sitting next to me. What can I do to help prevent my allergic symptoms?

Hopefully, the person sitting near you has taken the appropriate steps to safely bring their pet or support animal board. While you can rest assured it won't be a peacock, you could find yourself right next to a dog, cat or even a mini-horse!

You should pre-medicate with a non-drowsy antihistamine. If your allergies are severe, provide a letter to the airline at the gate from your medical provider stating you have pet allergies and ask for a pre- board pass so that you may adequately wipe down the area with some antiseptic wipes in the area you will be sitting.

Ask in advance to be seated at least several rows away from any animals. Wear protective eye wear and a scarf or facial mask to avoid eye contact with or the inhaling of the antigens. Carry an epi-pen if your pet allergies are more severe and be sure to shower and isolate your clothing for the wash as soon as possible after the flight.

Can the airline do anything to help prevent my allergies from ruining my flight?

Airlines are getting better at limiting the dangers that their passengers face from severe allergic reactions whether from food, animals or other irritants. It will always help to give them as much advance notice as possible.

Many airlines designate specific passenger rows for animal occupation, such as the first two rows of the plane, so that these areas may be vacuumed prior to the next passengers boarding.

There may be one plane restroom designated for accompanying animals, keeping the other restrooms away from pets. If you aren't sure which one is pet-free, be sure to ask.

A number of airlines provide simple inexpensive medical face masks at passenger request. Some have portable HEPA filters that can be worn around the neck with a lanyard cord or clipped to a belt. They are battery operated or can be plugged into the outlet of a computer.

When is an allergic reaction an emergency?

Recognizing a medical emergency is crucial. Here are some of the signs and symptoms to look for:

  • Cough, difficulty breathing or difficulty swallowing or chest pain
  • Nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain or diarrhea
  • Skin redness, itchiness, significant hives or welts
  • Heart palpitations, light headedness, dizziness, mental confusion or feeling faint

If these occur, call 911. Use your epi-pen if available. If you go to the emergency department, depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may be treated with oral or IV antihistamines and steroids to assist with breathing, nebulizer treatments, antihistamine eye drops, or low dose oral or topical steroids for your skin irritation.

How can I confirm that I have pet allergies?

Contact your primary care physician, dermatologist or the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, (AAAAI) for helpful information regarding allergy testing.

Hopefully some of these helpful hints and commonsense preventive measures can make your life, and your travels, more comfortable!