Allergies are on the increase


pet allergyby Aliki Nassoufis, German Press Agency

GERMANY - For many people contact with household pets is a normal part of their daily routine. But enjoyment of animals can quickly turn sour once a member of the family develops an allergy to a guinea pig or cat. That allergy can manifest itself in sneezing fits, respiratory problems and watery eyes.

In Germany, about 10 per cent of the population is allergic to house pets.

"From a medical standpoint the best thing to do is give the pet away," says Anja Schwalfenberg of Germany's Allergy and Asthma Association in Moenchengladbach.

Although such a measure seems drastic, a pet owner should weigh up how bad their allergy symptoms are without treatment as an allergy can lead to chronic asthma.

Even when the pet has been removed from the home that does not mean the allergy has gone away.

"Especially cat-allergens are very robust," says Schwalfenberg. They can remain in the house or apartment for a long time.

After the pet has left the home, bed-coverings should be washed, carpets vacuumed several times and in some cases air purification devices have to be used.

If the symptoms continue, Schwalfenberg recommends undergoing hyposensitisation therapy whereby the patient is injected with allergens, gradually reducing the body's sensitivity.

In the past, it was believed that animal hair caused allergies but research shows that allergens are only transported on hair strands.

In fact allergens are contained in saliva, urine, faeces and skin particles.

Saliva is one of the main causes of the allergens' dispersal as many animals clean themselves by licking their fur and thereby spread the allergens over their bodies.

By petting the animal the allergens are then transferred to the human's hands and clothes.

In practice most people with allergies have great difficulty separating themselves from their pets. Many decide to keep their cat or dog despite the symptoms.

"Anyone who holds onto their pet must try to reduce contact with the allergens," says Kirstin Jung, an allergist from Erfurt and recommends a number of measures.

"The animal should be kept outdoors, if possible, such as a rabbit in a stall."

If that is not possible, the animal should at least be kept out of the bedrooms.

"Regular vacuuming and airing rooms can reduce the allergen content in a home," says Jung who is also a member of the board of the Doctors' Association of German Allergists.

In addition, cats should be washed once a week, if they allow that. Jung says washing can drastically reduce allergen concentration.

But despite these measures it can happen that the allergy symptoms persist at an intolerable level. In those cases, the pet is often given to an animal shelter.

"We are seeing more animals here because the number of allergy sufferers is growing in Germany," says Evamarie Koenig of Berlin's animal shelter.

Every year, about 12,000 animals arrive in the shelter and many of them are from allergy sufferers.

"The problem is definitely growing," says Koening. That explains why experts agree that family members should be tested for allergies before allowing a dog or rabbit in the home.