First Family Will Have Tough Time Finding Hypoallergenic Dog

FRIDAY Nov. 14, 2008 -- President-elect Barack Obama has inspired throngs around the world to say, "Yes, we can."

But when it comes to finding a hypoallergenic dog for the White House, allergists are saying, "No, you can't."

"Unfortunately, there really is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog," said Dr. Jonathan Field, emeritus director of the pediatric allergy and asthma clinic at New York University/Bellevue Medical Center in New York City.

"The studies have not supported that there's any type of hypoallergenic dog," added Dr. Wanda Phipatanakul, chair of the Indoor Allergen Committee for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI). "All dogs produce allergens, so it would make common sense that if you've got 50 dogs in the home, the dog allergens are going to be higher than if you've got one, and if you have a huge dog, there will be more allergens than with a small dog, but all dogs produce allergens."

In his Election Night victory speech, Obama promised his two young daughters that they could take a puppy with them to the White House.

More recently, however, Obama reported that his 10-year-old daughter, Malia, is allergic, and thus would need a "hypoallergenic" dog.

But contrary to popular perception that allergies are caused by animal hair, allergies are actually caused by a protein found in the animal's dander (a combination of skin and hair), and also its saliva and urine.

"Even if you get a hairless dog, it's still going to produce the allergen," Phipatanakul said.

This would rule out even the "Peruvian Hairless" (and apparently sometimes toothless) dog the government of Peru has offered to send the White House and even the poodle or Bichon Frise varieties proposed by the American Kennel Club.

"All dogs, to my knowledge, have skin. Even if you shaved off all their hair, you'd still have skin flakes and saliva," Field said.

If someone with a pet allergy doesn't already have a dog, the expert advice is to not get one.

But there may be some breeds that are better than others (in terms of allergies), and there are some steps you can take to minimize exposure and symptoms:

  • "At least try to keep the dog out of the bedrooms, since we spend most of our time sleeping in our bedroom, especially children," Phipatanakul advised. Still, she warned, pet dander is going to be everywhere: on clothes, furniture, and even transferred to schools.
  • Bathe and groom the dog once a week: There is some evidence that more frequent washing removes some of the dander, at least temporarily.
  • Keep HEPA air filters (with double bags) on 24/7, especially in the bedroom.
  • See an allergist or immunologist to diagnose the allergy and discuss treatment options.
  • Replace carpeting with solid-surface flooring.
  • Look for breeds with shorter hair and less shedding. "Those that tend to keep their coat year around are a better bet in general," Field said. The "golden doodle" and other breeds that end in "oodle" aren't "100 percent hypoallergenic but are much less allergenic," added Chris Ashton, co-founder and president of Petplan Insurance in Philadelphia and pet parent to Wellington (3-year-old Cavalier) and Bodey (7-year-old Birman).
  • Once you've have a breed in mind, find someone who owns such a dog, spend the weekend with them, and see how you do, Field advised. "That'll be harder with the Secret Service following you everywhere, but you want to be in a house where their hair has infiltrated the bedding, as opposed to spending an hour or two in a pet store," he said.

More information

The AAAAI has more on indoor allergens.

Posted: November 2008


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