Honey Yoong has five dogs – Ping Ping (four), Mindy (six), Lulu (eight), Chelsea (15), and rescue Rocky (probably 10) – even though the Kuala Lumpur chef is allergic.
“We keep them clean, so I don’t get a big reaction. When I’m tired, I get a runny nose and reddish eyes but for the rest, it’s OK. But my husband reacts a lot. When he comes in, an hour later he has sore eyes and an itchy throat. He uses antihistamines and that helps.
“My husband is fine with his family’s cats, though, but funnily enough when I go there, I get the runny nose and sniffles. As for my mum, she has asthma, but she’s not affected by animals at all. We’ve always had rabbits, cats, birds, and other pets, and it’s never bothered her. Her own dogs sleep on her bed, ” says Yoong.
Aliza Zainul, an engineer in Kuala Lumpur, loves her cats Hachiko (10), Baby (eight), and Demon (three), but she also suspects she may be allergic.
“I’ve not been diagnosed but when I play with my cats, I will sneeze uncontrollably – more than five times within a minute! After sneezing a lot, my eyes water. If I keep playing with them, my nose clogs up and then it feels like I am having a runny nose.
“I noticed if I stop petting them and wait for a bit, I’ll stop sneezing. So, I limit my exposure time to my pets. Mind you, it used to be a lot worse. I can now play with my pets longer without the bout of sneezing.”
Interestingly, knowing if you’re allergic to a pet isn’t quite as straightforward as you might think.
“Dogs and cats have furry coats that pick up pollen and mould from outside, ” points out Dr Kent Woo Chee Keen of Allergy Immunology Clinic Kuala Lumpur, and member of the Malaysian Society of Allergy and Immunology (MSAI). “Therefore, some people will pet the fur, have a reaction to the allergens that are sticking to the fur and mistake the pet as the problem.”
For further confusion, some people will find they can hug their pets on some occasions and have no reaction whatsoever but come out in rashes at other times.
“Cats and dogs secrete proteins in various ways, including via their skin, saliva and urine, ” Dr Woo explains. “That protein component is what people are allergic too. So, you may find that hugging your dog isn’t a problem but if they have licked their fur, or they lick you, you will get a reaction.”
The World Health Organisation estimates that about 40% of the world’s population has an allergy of some kind. It is a problem that appears to be increasing as well.
“In Malaysia, the data isn’t perfect, but we think 15-20% of people have allergies to cats and dogs, like runny noses and itchy eyes, ” Dr Woo says. “However, the majority of that number are actually allergic to dust mites, microscopic creatures that have nothing to do with animals but that are present on furnishings.”
For the percentage who are sensitive to pets, merely staying out of the way won’t be enough.
“Pet owners have allergens on their clothes, hair and skin, and so the people who come into contact with them get it secondhand, ” Dr Woo points out. “So, it may be that you get reactions from being near your co-worker or your fellow student. Also, allergens are airborne as well.”
As for the idea that some of the less fluffy pets are less likely to create a reaction, that sadly appears to be a myth.
“When it comes to individual cats and individual dogs, we know that some will secrete more allergens than others, ” Dr Woo observes. “However, all cats and dogs secrete allergens. There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic breed.”
With all that to ponder, a further matter of interest is that some pet lovers note that they are somewhat sniffly with their own pets whereas they are dreadfully allergic to strange cats and dogs.
“That’s unusual, ” Dr Woo says. “What is more common is that people develop tolerances in general to pets. For example, if you’re a kid and you grow up with your pet dog or cat, and have a mild allergy, you develop a natural defensive tolerance that is built naturally. But if you go to college for a while, you are no longer exposed, and your defence erodes. Then, when you go home, you see a bigger reaction. You’ve always been allergic, but you’ve lost your tolerance.”
So what can you do if your heart yearns for the joy of a furry pet but your body isn’t keen on the idea?
“If you’re allergic, medical advice says not to get a pet, but people won’t listen, ” Dr Woo laughs and groans at the same time. “Look, if you are determined to have a pet, pay attention to the environment.
“We have a warm climate, so house your pet outdoors. If you can’t do that, at least keep it out of your bedroom. That way you won’t spend eight hours every night being exposed to allergens in your bedsheets. Also, use a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) standard air filter so you reduce exposure. Have one in the bedroom and one in the living room.”
With the wonders of science, there are also medical remedies available. Antihistamines are easy to find, safe and will reduce allergic reactions. Your family doctor can also talk to you about nasal sprays.
But there are approaches that offer a whole different level of protection.
“Allergen specific immunotherapy is like a vaccine type system whereby you develop a tolerance through injections, ” Dr Woo explains. “You need to be tested first to make sure you know exactly what you’re allergic too, and then undergo regular injections. It takes a minimum of three years and a maximum of five years but it can offer life-long benefits.
“We’ve also got some new technology, sublingual administration, where you place drops under the tongue and the medication is absorbed from there into the blood. Again, you have to do it for three years.”
Neither of these methods is cheap. Ballpark figures for three-year treatments start at RM12,000.
“Prices fluctuate and there are new methods in the pipeline, ” Dr Woo points out. “They’re working on a tablet right now that will be really easy to take at home. There is also a vaccine – where you need to take just three injections – under development.”
According to the World Allergy Organisation's White Book On Allergy (2011-2012), some 40% of all people and up to 50% of all children suffer from allergies.
Reactions stem from a slight sniffle or light rash all the way to upset stomachs, vomiting and asthma.
In severe cases, an allergic reaction causes anaphylaxis, a reaction that can kill.
Frighteningly, up to half of the people who die from anaphylaxis didn't show any signs of reaction before the fatal incident.
While scientists agree that there has been a rise in allergies in the last 50 years, the reason behind it is disputed. One idea is that when we are small, we develop a robust immune system that guards us against reactions from being exposed to dirt and bacteria. Therefore, some speculate that efficient cleaners and more urban living are to blame.
Others think obesity, poor eating habits, and a general lack of physical exercise are to blame. One school of thought focuses on gut health, looking very specifically at gastrointestinal microbial environments.
In addition, there may be genetic factors at play. Whatever it is, if you notice a sensitivity in yourself or your kids, talk to your family doctor. And if necessary, have a chat with a specialist.
As new medications are being developed, also keep a lookout on the news. In Malaysia, you can check the Malaysian Society of Allergy and Immunology website (https://www.allergymsai.org) for reports on important updates and to find a doctor near you.
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