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Even without her, Lassie's allergens come home

July 12, 2004|Melissa Healy | Special to The Times

Are you puffy with no Fluffy? Sniffly without Snuffles? Pet-less, but still not allergy-free?

It could be your house, clinging to the memory of a former feline friend or a canine-owning caller. In a first-of-its kind survey of homes across the nation, a federally funded study found that even in homes with no dogs or cats, allergen levels were frequently high enough to cause an attack of scratching, sniffling and eye-watering in the pet-allergic. And in affluent communities, where pet ownership is more widespread, the likelihood grew that even a pet-free household could set off symptoms.

Even new houses are not immune from a build-up of dander and pet fur. The reason, according to Dr. Samuel Arbes, an epidemiologist with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, is that dog and cat fur is everywhere, and it comes home on the clothes and bodies of human house dwellers.

"These allergens are very sticky," says Arbes, and high levels of pet dander are detectable in schools, on the seats of buses, on park benches and even in hospitals and allergists' offices. Wherever you are, it will follow you home like, well, a lost dog. And there it will stay.

The study surveyed 831 representative homes across the United States. As expected, by far the highest levels of cat or dog allergens were found in homes that housed a dog or cat. In homes with at least one cat, 95% had levels of pet dander sufficient to bring on an allergy attack in a person with such sensitivities. In homes with at least a single dog, that figure was 90%.

But 16% of cat-less homes and 9% of dog-less homes also had concentrations of pet dander sufficient to bring on an attack in the allergic. Not a single home in the survey was completely free of cat allergens. Only one home was completely free of dog allergens. Homes that were pet-free but still allergy-inducing were most common in white, non-Latino communities, where higher incomes translate into higher levels of pet ownership.

For the highly allergic, Arbes says, the message is that medication, rather than pet avoidance, is likely to be the more successful strategy for heading off allergy symptoms. He adds that more frequent cleaning might make some difference, but it cannot ensure the eradication of allergens. The effectiveness of special air filtration devices, which are sold briskly to those with allergies, remains controversial when it comes to removing cat and pet allergens.

Presiding over a household with two allergic children and a pet cat, however, Arbes is taking few chances. Rudy, the cat he has owned since before his allergic children were born, was sent to live outside long ago. But he's let in periodically, Arbes says, to cuddle with the kids and in the process replenish the allergens.

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