Testing for potential pet allergies
January 9, 2010 7:08 PM   Subscribe

Do I go to an allergist to get tested in order to find out what animals I'm allergic to? I would like a furry pet which I can handle, and want to know the viability of owning one before I commit to a purchase.

If I cannot get a cat or dog, will I have the same allergies from a chinchilla or guinea pig?
posted by ayc200 to Pets & Animals (17 answers total)
Sounds like a good idea.
Note that I recently found out that my strongest, most virulent allergy is to cats; I've never lived without a cat in my entire life. Not stopping now.
posted by Billegible at 7:13 PM on January 9, 2010

I'd call an allergist to see what they test for. My husband had a scratch test done, which tested whether he was allergic to about 30 different allergens. I don't know that chinchilla or guinea pig were among them (I would assume not), but the allergist might know.
posted by christinetheslp at 7:13 PM on January 9, 2010

If I cannot get a cat or dog, will I have the same allergies from a chinchilla or guinea pig?

You might but probably not. I know several people with rodent allergies and they all own cats or dogs. Also I'm not allergic to mice but have had reactions from some rats. The allergens are different for each species, with more closely related species more likely to have similar allergens, but who knows, you might be allergic to a bunch of stuff. If you have some reason to think you're going to react then yeah, an allergist can check. Ringing first to see what they'll test for is a good idea too.

Personally I'd stick my face next to some cages in the pet store then go from there. Won't rule out an allergy but can show you pretty quickly if you have one. The rat cage definitely makes me snuffly.
posted by shelleycat at 7:20 PM on January 9, 2010

As far as I know, my husband's allergist was able to test for pretty much any potential pet--or could at least give intelligent advice on more unusual animals based on the allergens he did test for.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:26 PM on January 9, 2010

After I discovered the hard way that I was allergic to guinea pigs, I asked my allergist to test me for allergies to other rodents. It could make a big difference in how much trouble I should go to in ridding the house of mice. He said he could not do it, because, he said, there was no antigen available for them.

By the way, my first allergist told me I was allergic to cats and that I should get rid of mine. She was wrong. In retrospect, she was a bit of a quack. My second one said I was allergic to dogs, but I wasn't; I'm allergic to dust, and that sample of dog antigen was contaminated with dust. The second and third allergists confirmed my lack of cat allergy. (I spent about eight years with each allergist.) I seem to be allergic to nothing but dust and guinea pigs. I had a pet guinea pig in high school and have always lived with cats.
posted by Ery at 7:35 PM on January 9, 2010

You might also want to test drive the pet by handling it for a while before committing. I'm only allergic to the occasional cat (a subset of long haired ones) but I am really allergic to those few cats. I can do a sneeze test on an individual cat in minutes.
posted by fshgrl at 7:37 PM on January 9, 2010

Even if you are allergic to an animal, it may not preclude you from having that kind of animal as a pet. If your allergy is mild, or if you take certain precautions (example: not letting the animal in your bedroom), or if you're willing to get ongoing treatment (shots and/or medication), you may be able to happily co-exist with an animal that you are technically allergic to.

I remember the only animals included in my scratch test were dogs and cats. I also vaguely remember that the allergist tailored my test to a subset of allergens she suspected were triggering my symptoms.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:16 PM on January 9, 2010

Everybody's different, and a test is the best way to find out. I'm allergic to cats and guinea pigs, but not dogs, so allergies to one or two don't mean anything about your likeliness to be allergic to another.
posted by Dasein at 8:19 PM on January 9, 2010

You can go to an allergist for skin and even blood tests, but the only 100% for sure test will be if you spend time with the animal and see if you have a reaction. One method you could try if you find an animal you like (and it should be that exact animal you're getting, not just the type of animal) is to bring a towel or some kind of fabric item in, put it in their cage or sleeping area for a day or two. Then bring that item home with you and sleep with it near your face. See if you have a reaction. Keep some Benadryl handy in case you do have a problem.
posted by girlhacker at 9:00 PM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Note also that your immune system will compensate. It's a wonderful thing. I started out very allergic to my male hound, but after a few years with him, he can sleep in the same bed with me without causing a reaction.
posted by SpecialK at 9:28 PM on January 9, 2010

Note also that your immune system will compensate.

Unfortunately it's just as likely to compensate the other way. I know a reasonable number of researchers who have had to change their career, sometimes fairly drastically, after becoming sensitised to rodents. What starts off as a mild allergy can become quite serious with repeat exposure. You can work with an allergist to desensitise but don't assume this is going to happen in the wild so to speak.
posted by shelleycat at 10:09 PM on January 9, 2010

Best answer: You can often "borrow" an animal from a shelter to see if you're compatible. That might be a more reliable test than an allergist.

(AlsoI expect tests for specific pet allergies might be costly, because the regular allergy tests don't cover them -- at least not in my family's experience.)
posted by anadem at 10:41 PM on January 9, 2010

I know that bunnies are a different allergy than dogs or cats or mice, because I got tested for about a million things and then after the test mentioned that I had a pet rabbit and they had to stab me all over again to see if that was the problem.

You should go in and request all the animals you think are cute instead of getting the standard prick tests that include dust and mites and mold and things like that. They should be able to do it for you.
posted by rmless at 11:49 PM on January 9, 2010

I am allergic to cats, however not to Devon Rex cats. They are considered low allergy or hypo allergenic. So even if the test says you are allergic to cats, you may be able to tolerate certain breeds. I have a devon rex kitten and once and a while need to take eye drops for itchy eyes-- but I am not always sure if it is the cat or other environment allergens.
posted by psususe at 7:19 AM on January 10, 2010

If you have numerous and occasionally surprising allergies (as I do), here are a few things to keep in mind:

1) As others have mentioned, an allergist can test you for "dog" generally but not for a specific dog. Some dogs make my eyes and nose run, but I cohabitated very happily with my non-shedding Maltese for 17 years (poodles and bichon-frises also have the same non-typical, much less allergic coats). So after getting overall input from a good allergist, unless it is "you will die if you spend a night in a house with X kind of animal in it," try to fine-tune your knowledge of your allergies by spending time with the specific breed or even specific animal you like most.

2) Also as others have noted, not all allergists are equal. Any highly recommended one should be able to do the basic tests competently (either scratch tests, or blood tests if there's a risk of you going into shock from a scratch test), but their recommendations based on the results will vary depending on how relaxed vs. paranoid their particular dispositions are, so use your own common sense as well as listening to the doctor.

3) Even if you are not allergic to a kind of animal per se, it may not be feasible for you to keep one. For example, I'm not allergic to guinea pigs, but I'm quite allergic to guinea pig food. Think about what things you will need to keep in your home besides the animal itself (especially if it will be an indoor pet) and consider whether there might be any problems with the pet supplies, and if so whether there are substitutions you could make to keep yourself healthy.

4) Allergies change over time, both for the better and the worse. After adopting your pet, keep tabs on your reactions, and if they seem to be getting worse, go back to your allergist in case there are shots or medications that can help.
posted by unsub at 12:44 PM on January 10, 2010

Wouldn't it just be cheaper to go to someone's house who has the kind of pet you are interested in? If you want a dog or cat call one of your local animal rescue centers (they are just about everywhere) and ask if you can visit houses with pets and stay there for a few hours. Often the volunteers at these charities know a lot about animals and may even be able to give you more advice. Also, visiting with these animals will help you clarify what kind you'd prefer.
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 1:01 PM on January 11, 2010

A scratch test is a good idea, IMO. I'm very allergic to cats and guinea pigs, but have never had a reaction to dogs or chinchillas. I think chinchillas may be nearly hypo-allergenic, actually. Some individual dogs and cats are more "allergy-friendly" than others, too. If you have the guts to do your own "testing", pet the animal you're considering adopting and then rub your eyes as if you were sleepy. Have Benadryl on hand. And if you fall in love with an animal you're allergic to, you can consider immuno-therapy (shots).
posted by Hdog at 4:11 PM on January 11, 2010

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