I've been suspicious of all so-called hypoallergenic pets ever since my husband first came face to face with his parents' ragdoll cat, Posey -- an adorable fluffball of a kitten who, the breeder improbably guaranteed, would neither shed nor cause allergic symptoms. He took one look and promptly started sniffling and sneezing.
There has been very little hard research on the topic, even as the market for supposedly allergy-free animals -- which often sell for hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars -- has boomed. (Even the White House succumbed to the trend, with first pooch Bo, a Portuguese water dog who was chosen because of Malia Obama's allergies.)
But a study in the American Journal of Rhinology & Allergy suggests that there may be no such thing as a hypoallergenic canine, after all.
Researchers at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit analyzed dust samples from 173 dog-owning households, representing 60 breeds, including 11 that are considered hypoallergenic, including Portuguese water dogs, poodles and schnauzers. They found that the homes with allegedly hypoallergenic pets contained just as much of the prime dog allergen, known as Can f 1, as those with the other breeds. "Any way we looked at it, there just wasn't a difference," says senior author and epidemiologist Christine Cole Johnson. "There is simply no environmental evidence that any particular dog breed produces more or less allergen in the home than another one."
Allergist Anne Miranowski, who works at the Pediatric Lung Center in Fairfax, Va., wasn't surprised by the findings. "What I've always told my patients is 'If you can find a dog without skin, saliva and urine, then you have a hypoallergenic dog,' " she says. These are the main sources of Can f 1, a protein that can attach to the dried skin flakes called dander and make its way into the air and your home.
Miranowski adds that while there is no comparable research on felines, based on what she's seen in practice and some smaller studies, "It's very much the same story: I don't think there's a truly hypoallergenic cat out there, either."
That's not to say, however, that every animal generates the same quantity of dander. "The bottom line is that there's huge variability from one dog to another in the amount of allergen they produce, but that variability is not predicted by breed, size, shedding or hair length -- any of the things we thought in the past or that breeders still claim," says Robert Wood, director of pediatric allergy and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore. In fact, Wood notes that it's not uncommon, within a single breed, to see a hundredfold difference in the amount of Can f 1 one dog creates vs. another. He attributes this to a combination of genetics and behavior as well as environmental factors such as how often owners clean their pets and their home. Still, generally speaking, Wood says that male animals tend to produce and shed more allergens than females.
Unfortunately, there's no way to know how one bichon frise or German shepherd stacks up against another, allergen-wise, when you pick out a puppy. The only real solution, it seems, is trial and error.
"You need to visit that dog and see what happens, see how you or your child reacts," says Wood, who notes that most reputable kennels and breeders will offer a two- or three-week grace period, which is plenty of time to gauge the situation. "Choose a breed you like for your family, then take the pet home for a while and see if it's going to work out."
What else is an animal-loving allergy sufferer to do?
Miranowski recommends lifestyle adjustments that can alleviate sneezing, wheezing and the like, from enforcing a 100 percent dog-free zone in the bedroom, including the use of a HEPA filter to remove dander from the air, to washing sheets in hot water on a weekly basis and using dust-mite covers for all bedding and pillows. In addition, she points out that bathing your pet regularly can help reduce allergens, although Wood stresses that research has shown that you'll have to suds up Fido or Fifi at least two to three times a week to see a real difference.
When all else fails, medications and allergy shots can also help.