Fall 2011 Magazine

Casa Canine

Achoo! The Hypoallergenic Dog:
A Canine Panacea or Wishful Thinking?

By Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.

Search the Internet for breeds of hypoallergenic dogs - dogs that do not cause allergies - and you will find upwards of sixty breeds listed. They run the gamut from familiar breeds like poodles and schnauzers to the more exotic, lesser known breeds like the Lowchen and the Xoloitzcuintle (aka Mexican hairless). Many people first learned about hypoallergenic dogs during the search by President and Mrs. Obama for a hypoallergenic dog for their daughter Malia who is allergic to dogs. They chose a Portuguese Water Dog. There has also been a rise in the breeding of hybrid dogs that are hypoallergenic - the "oodle dogs." To develop a hypoallergenic dog, the hybrids are often crosses between poodles - a non-shedding breed - and other breeds: Cockapoos - poodle/cocker spaniel cross, Labradoodles - Labrador retriever/poodle crosses, and schnoodles - schnauzer/poodle crosses. With the rising popularity of these "hypoallergenic" hybrids, other breeds have also been crossed in an attempt to serve the demand. Often these dogs are quite expensive. And depending on the cross, not all pups in a litter may carry the purported hypoallergenic traits. A provocative new study by Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, MI sheds serious doubt as to whether hypoallergenic dogs exist at all.

Allergy 101. An allergy is an over-reaction by the body to a generally harmless substance (called an allergen). For some reason in some people, the body's immune system reacts to the allergen as if it were a harmful invader. In an attempt to protect the body from the invading allergen, the body produces what we experience as an allergic reaction. These reactions include such symptoms as watery eyes, sneezing, wheezing, red itchy eyes, coughing and more.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, almost 40% of American households have one or more dogs (1). The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America estimates that 15-30% of people who have allergies are allergic to dogs and cats (2). In America, it is almost impossible to avoid dogs and dog allergens.

For people who are allergic to dogs, the culprit allergens are certain proteins in dog dander, saliva and urine. Dog dander is believed to be the major culprit. The dander is made up of small flakes of dead skin that continually slough off the dog as the skin renews itself. Just like humans, all dogs have dander. Although some dog types may shed more dander than others or shed it more frequently, all dogs shed dander. Despite claims you may read online to the contrary, there is no such thing as a totally dander-less dog. In addition to dander, saliva and urine are allergens for some people. Since all dogs urinate and lick to clean themselves, these allergens are also found on the hair.

The problem with a dander allergen is that, like dust, dander is tiny, lightweight, and exists everywhere in the environment where a dog is present or where a dog has been. Dander is often described as 'sticky' in that it can adhere tightly to almost any surface. The dander flakes off the skin of the dog, attaches to the hair and is then deposited on furniture and carpeting in the home, and clothing. Dander is distributed as the dog rubs against objects, including people, or rolls on the floor. Dander becomes airborne every time the dog moves or shakes. It can hide in any crack or crevice. Even if the dog is removed from the family, it is extremely difficult to eliminate all dander from a home where the persistent flakes can last for months. The dander causes allergic reactions when it comes in contact with the skin or is inhaled.

Traits commonly found among the dogs listed as hypoallergenic are: non-shedding, sparse or no undercoat, slow rate of skin sloughing, or hairlessness. What these traits boil down to is that these breeds contribute less hair to the environment. Nonhypoallergenic dogs are believed to shed greater amounts of hair and dander. Hair with the dander attached mixes with dust to produce highly allergenic dust/hair balls in every nook and cranny in your home. What complicates the issue is that allergies to dust mites produce similar symptoms to dog allergens.

A pertinent question at this point is how sure are you that you or your child are allergic to dogs, and not reacting instead to the increased dust created in your home by the presence of a dog? The first and simplest thing to do is to get the person with the allergy symptoms tested. A simple skin test can determine if the allergen is actually the dog dander, dust/dust mites or something else. With almost identical symptoms it is difficult to tell for sure without the test.

If testing reveals that the allergen is from dog dander, many people consider a hypoallergenic dog. But is a hypoallergenic dog really better for allergy sufferers than other types of dogs? While a hypoallergenic dog may contribute less hair, will the dog contribute less dander allergen to your home environment than a nonhypoallergenic dog? This is the big question that a new study by researchers from the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, MI and Georgia Health Sciences University in Augusta, GA. has tackled.

What the study found: Researchers from the Henry Ford Hospital compared dog allergen in dust samples found in homes with hypoallergenic versus nonhypoallergenic dogs. They used both pure bred and mixed breeds classified as either hypoallergenic or nonhypoallergenic. They measured the amounts of dog allergen found in specific areas of home environments. The results were surprising. The allergen levels in the homes with hypoallergenic dogs were not less than homes with nonhypoallergenic dogs. The study concludes, "There was no evidence for differential shedding of allergen by dogs grouped as hypoallergenic. Clinicians should advise patients that they cannot rely on breeds deemed to be "hypoallergenic" to in fact disperse less allergen in their environment." The authors suggest that additional research is needed to further examine the issue (3).

"We found no scientific basis to the claim hypoallergenic dogs have less allergen," says Christine Cole Johnson, Ph.D., MPH, chair of Henry Ford's Department of Public Health Sciences and senior author of the study. "Based on previous allergy studies conducted here at Henry Ford, exposure to a dog early in life provides protection against dog allergy development. But the idea that you can buy a certain breed of dog and think it will cause less allergy problems for a person already dog-allergic is not borne out by our study." (4).

What are the options for dog lovers with dog allergies? If you do not already have a dog and are concerned about dog allergen, seek out exposure to dogs before adopting one. Better to know if you are allergic before you bring a dog into your home, sparing everyone the heartbreak of having to give the dog up. If you do have a canine companion and find that your beloved pet is causing your allergy, don't immediately assume that you have to give up your dog. Regardless of the type of dog you have, there are many things you can do to decrease the amount of dog allergen in your home environment even with the dog in residence. (Note: In some cases dog allergies can be severe and exacerbate existing health conditions like asthma. Avoidance is the best solution in this case.) Even if you have a dog classified as hypoallergenic, there will still be dander. Your allergist can help you with your dog allergy using a combination of treatments including allergy medications, immunotherapy (allergy shots), and measures to decrease the allergen your home environment.

You can greatly decrease the dog allergen level in your household though routine cleaning to remove built-up allergen. Keep your dog off the furniture, or toss cloth covers that can be washed regularly over sofas and chairs. Thoroughly and frequently dust and vacuum your home. Use HEPA filters, which capture very tiny particles of pollutants, for vacuums, heating vents and air cleaners. Regularly bathe and groom your dog to reduce dander shedding, and to remove shedding hair. Brush your dog outdoors when weather permits to keep allergens activated by the brushing from accumulating in the home. Wash your dog's bedding often. Restrict the dog from certain rooms in the home. Keep your dog out of your bedroom and the bedroom door closed at all times to reduce dander allergen exposure while you sleep.

The research by the Ford team suggests that no dog is truly hypoallergenic; all produce allergen to some level - with hypoallergenic dogs producing levels of allergen no less than nonhypoallergenic dogs. For dog lovers, a home without a dog feels like a home without a heart. Following allergists' recommendations and the guidelines for minimizing dog allergen in the home, will help reduce the allergic response and enable many families to keep their beloved dogs. The work is worth the effort when the reward is a relatively sneeze and wheeze free life with your beloved canine companion by your side.

(1) Humane Society of the United States.
(2) The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
(3) Nicholas, Charlotte E.; Wegienka, Ganesa R.; Havstad, Suzanne L.; Zoratti, Edward M.; Ownby, Dennis R.; Johnson, Christine Cole. American Journal of Rhinology & Allergy, Volume 25, Number 4, July/August 2011, pp. 252-256 (For the full text of the article, click on the PDF or html link on the index page).
(4) Henry Ford Hospital Press Release, July 7, 2011.

Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is a writer and columnist for PETroglyphs and an author of children's books about dogs. She lives with her husband and her two canine companions, Gus and Etta.

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