Allergies - Facts and Fiction

by Jay Bianco

It's not surprising that myths and misconceptions about Maltese and allergies exist. Some are factual to a degree, but others are totally incorrect and often influence our attitudes or knowledge about dealing with sensitivities to pets. Here is what I believe to be true with regards to allergies and Maltese.

Any animal with fur or feathers can trigger an allergic reaction. These include cats, dogs, rabbits, gerbils, guinea pigs, hamsters, ferrets, mice, horses, cattle, monkeys, goats, pigs, chickens, and birds. Of these, research indicates that cats are by far the worst offenders, followed by dogs and horses.

While some animals seem to be more tolerable than others, there are no dogs, cats or other furry animals that do not cause allergic responses. It makes no difference whether an animal has short hair, long hair or how much it sheds.

Cats cause more severe allergic reactions than other pets
The major cat allergen is an extremely potent one called Fel d1. Secretions from the sebaceous glands of the skin are the primary source of Fel d1, but it is also deposited on the fur through the saliva when cats clean themselves through the licking or self-cleaning process. Eventually the Fel d1 flakes off and becomes airborne to trigger the symptoms that characterize allergies to cats. Male cats generally produce more allergens than females do.

The problem is not with the pet's hair. It is the dander, or microscopic scales of dead skin (similar to, but much smaller than the dandruff on the human scalp) which pets are constantly shedding that is the cause. They are so tiny that you seldom, if ever, know that they are circulating in the air or laying on the furniture and carpets.

Recent studies indicate that urine (protein), from cats and dogs as well as from ferrets, guinea pigs, hamsters, and mice, contain allergens which can also trigger allergic reactions.

Short-haired or long-haired dogs - Doesn't matter
All dogs – short-haired, long-haired, wire-haired, curly-haired, even hairless—are potentially allergic. Allergic reactions to dogs are not caused by the hair or fur but by dander (the tiny scales of dead skin) and by sebaceous and salivary gland secretions. Short-haired dogs can cast off as many allergens into the environment as long-haired ones do.

Maltese are not hypoallergenic
Just because a Maltese "doesn't shed", so to speak, it makes no difference. It is surprising how many Maltese owners have bought these breeds because they were told they did not cause allergies. Not true!

While it has recently been established that some dogs cast off more allergens than others, there are no non-allergenic dogs. The reason Maltese dogs are thought to be "safe" is probably because they are shampooed and groomed regularly and therefore cast off less dander in the home.

Some people may have more problems living with a dog that shed hair profusely because of the excessive amount of loose hair contaminated by dried saliva and dander clinging to it shed from the pet onto the rugs, furniture and the dogs bedding and favorite lounging places. Frequent vacuumings are usually necessary, along with the use of a moist sponge, to pick it up.

A Maltese puppy will cause fewer allergy problems than an adult
A Maltese puppy has no old skin to shed and consequently has no dander. It usually takes a few months before puppies produce these allergens. This may explain why people who buy young pets become allergic to them when the they reach maturity.

People cannot be allergic to some breeds of dogs and not to others
The possibility of dog breed-specific allergens was first investigated many years ago, reports Dr. David Knysak of the Department of Medicine's Allergy Division of the University of Michigan Medical Center. Subsequent studies have determined both qualitative and quantitative variations in the antigen content extracts derived from different dog breeds, however, he adds, no breed-specific allergens have been found.

It is true, though, that an individual may occasionally become sensitized to or build up resistance to a single breed over a period of time. Another reason why people may think they are allergic to certain breeds of dogs is that some dogs shed many more allergens than others, a process which may produce a higher level of exposure and consequently more allergic symptoms.

Restricting your Maltese to one or two rooms of the house does not help
The longer your Maltese lives in a home, the more its allergens will have permeated the entire house to cause symptoms. Isolating your Maltese to one or two rooms in the home does not contain their allergens. Air currents from forced-air heating, air conditioning and fans spread the allergens through the house.

Such particles tend to remain airborne for hours, even in homes with minimal disturbance. Once they do settle, vacuuming or walking on the carpet, sitting on the furniture, fluffing up cushions pillows and the pet’s bedding, raising or lowering the blinds, and opening or closing the drapes or curtains causes tremendous amounts to be set loose in the air once again.

People cannot tell if they will be allergic the first time they encounter a pet
No one is allergic to a substance the first time he or she comes in contact with it. Sensitization, or the process that leads to development of symptoms, requires repeated exposures over a period of time, anywhere from days to months and possibly years. Sometimes, though, only a few minutes of a pet's presence is necessary. People who come in contact with a cat, for instance, or who enter a room where a cat has been, may react to it within seconds. Other times a pet can be kept for many years and then suddenly its owner will become severely sensitive to it.

Being allergic does not mean that you can't have a Maltese or that you must give up one you already have.....
If you are allergic to six things, get rid of three of them and you may drop below your allergic threshold, and become symptom-free. Find out from a physician what your particular allergen is, and if it turns out to be pet- related, try to reduce the allergens in the environment. Using air cleaners or filters could be a start. Your physician may also be able to prescribe medications to lessen the symptoms associated with allergies. If you are allergic to fur, a breed of dog that doesn't shed such as a Maltese might be the answer.

Dander is a common culprit in allergies to dogs. A dog can be bathed up to twice weekly to try to alleviate the excessive dander production. Be sure though to use a medicated pet shampoo prescribed by a veterinarian and not an inexpensive alternative which can dry out your pet's skin and worsen the problem for the both of you. A non-allergic member of the family should brush the dog often, preferably outside.

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