If you could snap your fingers and make your allergies disappear, youd probably do it in a second. But what if your pet is the cause of your watery eyes, sneezing, and runny nose? Suddenly that oh-so-simple decision becomes a much tougher call. For some, the psychological misery of giving up a pet may outweigh the everyday misery of allergy symptoms.

The problem starts with dander, one of the most stubborn and common allergens. Cats, dogs, and other furry or feathered pets produce dander, which consists of microscopic, dandruff-like flakes of skin and proteins from saliva and urine that can trigger allergies and aggravate asthma. If youre allergic to dander, the easiest route to allergy relief is to find your pet a new home.

In fact, thats what most doctors will tell you to do. Yet this advice is rarely welcomed or followed, even when the pet is causing serious problems. “Some families cant fathom giving away their pet—its almost like giving away one of their children,” says Anne Miranowski, MD, an allergist at the Pediatric Lung Center in Fairfax, Va. “I see some children where exposure to their three cats is clearly making them sick, and the family insists on keeping all three cats.”

Physicians and health organizations recognize the attachment that people have to their pets. If a family is unwilling to remove a pet, experts recommend a host of alternative measures, such as limiting contact between the pet and the allergic person (by keeping pets outdoors or out of bedrooms, for instance) and using air cleaners. (Find out the best ways to reduce pet allergens in your home.)

These measures arent nearly as effective as giving away a pet, however, and going this route will likely have consequences—more symptoms, more medication, and a potential worsening of asthma—that should be weighed against the distress of seeing a cat or dog pitter-patter out of your life forever. And although there may be some breeds touted as better for people with allergies—think the Obamas and their Portuguese water dog, Bo—there are no cats or dogs truly free from dander.

You pet may not be causing your symptoms
Before you think about finding a pet a new home, its important to figure out if you—or your children—are in fact allergic. Though it seems as if pet allergies should be obvious, they are sometimes harder to recognize than you think.

If your eyes start to swell and you sneeze uncontrollably every time you are near a cat, then yes, you are probably allergic to cats. But some people with allergies or asthma who grow up around animals and are in contact with them every day may have more subtle symptoms. Instead of watery eyes and the other classic signs of pet allergies, they may experience chronic, low-level congestion, for instance.

“A lot of times people will say, ‘My dog or cat doesnt bother me, but when somebody is exposed to a pet day in and day out, they dont have the dramatic symptoms every time they see it,” says Andy Nish, MD, an allergist at the Allergy & Asthma Care Center, in Gainesville, Ga. “It may be a more subtle and chronic inflammatory process, and they may not realize that the pet is causing them problems.”

This phenomenon sometimes works in reverse: In some cases, people with asthma may believe that their pet is causing them more problems than it actually is. A respiratory condition in which the lung airways are chronically inflamed, asthma can be triggered by substances other than pet dander, such as dust mites, exhaust, smoke, and cold air, or even allergens from rodents and cockroaches. For some (but certainly not all) asthmatics, pets may actually be a relatively minor contribution to their symptoms, and some asthmatics may not be allergic to pets at all.

“Theres no reason to consider removing a pet unless you can demonstrate that there is a sensitization to that type of animal,” says Gregory Diette, MD, an asthma specialist and associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in Baltimore. “One mistake Ive seen [physicians] make is to generally recommend that asthmatics not have cats, dogs, or other furred pets when they havent done the allergy testing to prove whether theres an abnormal response to that type of animal.”

The easiest way to pinpoint a pet allergy is to visit an allergist and get a series of skin tests, in which the skin is exposed to small samples of the proteins shed by cat, dog, and other allergy-triggering substances, such as pollen or dust. Allergists may also use a blood test known as a RAST as an alternative to or in addition to skin tests.

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