There is a lot of debate about the so-called “allergy friendly” dog breeds available today. I wanted to take some time to summarize the facts and the latest research. To families already dealing with serious food allergies, the idea of an allergy friendly dog sounds pretty good. Who wouldn’t want that? Looking at the science tells a different story though.
When you are dealing with dog allergies, there are five main culprits: urine, saliva, dander, what the dog eats, and environmental allergens (grass, pollen, etc.) that the dog picks up on his coat. You can be allergic to one specific allergen or a combination of them. Without specific testing you may not know which allergen you are responding to. For example, a dog’s food may contain something you are highly allergic to. When the dog licks his coat or licks you directly it may cause you to break out. While you may assume you are allergic to dogs, it may be only the dog’s food that is causing the reaction. The same thing can happen with environmental allergens. A dog may cause you to react if it has high levels of grass, dust or pollen on its coat. Alternatively, if you are allergic to dog saliva and break out when petting a dog, you may think it is the dog’s dander that is the problem, when it may be the saliva on the coat that is to blame. Obviously, no dog will ever be hypoallergenic, but sometimes one dog will bother a person while another dog seems to have no effect.
Just to be clear, a dog’s dander expression level is not the same whether or not the dog sheds. Dander is the term for the tiny flakes of skin that naturally flake off as the skin renews itself. The shedding of hair and dander are independent variables. A dog may shed a lot and still have very low dander levels, and vice versa.
A dog’s dander levels are controlled by two things: 1.) genetic factors that determine protein expression, and 2.) environmental factors (how frequently the dog is bathed, the use of dander reducing shampoos, and possibly even their diet or supplements). It has been assumed that dander levels would vary by breed, with some breeds naturally having lower dander than others. The research being done in this field has not found this to be true. In fact, much of the research out there shows that there is significantly greater variation in dander level from dog-to-dog than from breed-to-breed. This means that while one poodle may have very low dander levels, another may have high levels, and the same is true for all breeds. Some dogs within the breed will naturally have higher or lower levels of dander expression. The greatest surprise in all the research was that the ONLY breed clinically shown to have significantly less dander than other breeds was the Labrador Retriever. Poodles actually came in higher than many of the other breeds tested. (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1398-9995.2005.00824.x/pdf) These findings from 2005 directly contradict current popular beliefs.
Additionally, allergic response to dander seems to be a very personal thing- one person allergic to dog dander may respond to a particular dog with severe symptoms while another person with dog dander allergies may not respond to that dog at all.
If dog dander is a concern, you will ultimately need to be around the specific dog you are considering to determine how you will react. There are several things you can do to minimize dander levels on any dog. Frequent bathing removes the dander deep down. Gentle, moisturizing shampoos aid in keeping the skin soft and healthy. Special dander-reducing shampoos are available at many vet offices or online. Wiping the dog’s coat down daily with baby or pet wipes will help remove any surface dander, and ensuring the dog’s diet is rich in omega-3 fatty acids can also help. Basically anything that keeps the skin and coat clean, moisturized and healthy will help reduce dander.
Reducing household exposure is another way to limit the effect of a dog’s dander on allergy sufferers. By restricting the areas the dog is allowed in the house, you cut down on the areas where dander is being spread. Bedrooms, furniture and carpeted areas are the key areas to avoid because dander can stick to fabrics. Avoiding close contact, such as hugging, wrestling and snuggling are also good ideas. Working service dogs are much different than pets, and while pets often live in the house and sleep where we sleep, often service dogs do not. They are with you throughout the day and benefit greatly from some time apart. It is recommended that they be crated at night and that they not be with you 24/7. This gives them something to look forward to when they go out to work the next day. It is okay to have them sleep away from you and to limit where they can go. They live a great life! (What other dog gets to go to school or to work with you?) Don’t feel guilty about the sleeping arrangements, they’re still going to love you!
Ironically, the fleece coat on dogs often thought to be more allergy friendly because of their low shedding may actually act as a magnet for environmental allergens such as dust, dirt, pollen and grass. If environmental allergies are also an issue, it may be difficult to tell if you are responding to the dog or to the allergens he picked up outside. Once you find out the source of the problem, you can begin to develop solutions. Keeping environmental allergens at bay is done in the same manner as dander reduction: frequent bathing, wiping down of the coat, reducing time spent outdoors and limiting their contact in the house and with the allergic person.
Managing dog allergies is possible, but as with anything, make sure to talk with your allergist about the overall implications of bringing a dog into your life.
“Dog factor differences in Can f1 allergen production.” Allergy, 2005. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1398-9995.2005.00824.x/pdf
“Identification of allergens in dog dander extract.” Annals of Allergy. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6158895
“Nonallergenic dog? Not really.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/02/05/us/nonallergenic-dog-not-really.html?pagewanted=2&src=pm
“Washing a dog reduces dog allergen levels, but the dog needs to be washed twice a week.” Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10200004