Pete Nowak is well acquainted with allergies. The Toronto writer and journalist works from a home that he shares with his fiancée’s cats. Unfortunately for Nowak, he has a severe cat allergy, one that has developed into serious breathing issues. “I did not have asthma before I had cats,” he says. He also didn’t have a congested nose and watery eyes every morning.

Nowak’s allergy has driven him to seek every remedy possible. First he tried immunotherapy, a process by which tiny amounts of allergens are introduced into the body to desensitize it and reduce allergic reactions. “I tried immunotherapy for two years but it didn’t work at all,” he says. “It might help with other symptoms, but not asthma.”

Next was advanced allergy therapeutics, an alternative treatment that stimulates pulse points on the body while a “representation” of allergens is introduced to the surface of the skin. It didn’t solve his problem, either.

Nowak now takes leukotriene receptor antagonists, medications that can block the inflammatory chemical reaction occurring when the body is exposed to triggers such as pet hair or animal dander, and reopen closed airways. He also relies on his asthma puffers to help open his airways when an attack is imminent.

Despite all this, Nowak is optimistic. He has an air purifier with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter. He’s getting a new vacuum cleaner. And he says that since living with the cats, he’s noticed his symptoms are gradually lessening. “I think I’m getting used to them,” he says.

How a pet allergy can make you miserable

Pet allergies can cause a lot of unpleasant symptoms:

  • Itchy, red, watery eyes
  • Itchy throat or roof of mouth
  • Nasal congestion
  • Cough or trouble breathing
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Skin reactions such as eczema, allergic dermatitis or hives
  • Wheezing or asthma
  • Swollen skin under the eyes

For those with pet allergies, it’s therefore best if pets aren’t in the home, says Karen Petcoff, of the Ontario Lung Association. But what if you’re moving in with a partner whose pets are considered extended family, or you can’t bear to part with your new puppy? You can take steps to reduce the amount of dander and hair you breathe in, which is critical for keeping your symptoms under control.

If you have a pet you are allergic to and cannot find it a new, loving home, the following steps may help:

  • Vacuum your home often, preferably with a vacuum with a HEPA filter.
  • Remove carpeting if possible.
  • Choose leather- versus fabric-covered furniture, as it’s easier to clean.
  • Bathe your pet regularly.
  • Keep the pet out of bedrooms and off furniture.
  • Limit your time with the pet.
  • Neuter male pets to curb the release of pheromones, sex chemicals released by the animal that can aggravate allergies.
  • Use effective air filters to help reduce the volume of airborne allergens.

Help for pet allergies is on the way

When keeping a pet at bay simply isn’t working and you’re still congested — or worse, asthmatic — consider talking to an allergist, says Mark Larché, professor of medicine at McMaster University and the Canada Research Chair in Allergy and Immune Tolerance. He says allergy shots can be an effective way of gradually building up a tolerance to pets, though a cat allergy can be tough to treat. The shots, which contain a tiny amount of an allergen, are administered every month for an average of three years. This treatment must be approached carefully because the very allergic may experience adverse reactions to shots if a dose is too high.

But more help may be on the horizon. Larché and his team have been working on developing allergy vaccines engineered to have fewer side effects and provide better immunity to allergies with fewer doses than traditional shots. “Our vaccines consist of key peptides that can alter the immune response to cat allergens,” he says. “The clinical trials we’ve done show that four injections can protect you for a whole year.” He hopes the vaccines will launch in 2013 or 2014.

And if allergy shots don’t work, asthma/allergy medications such as antihistamines, leukotriene receptor antagonists, corticosteroids, bronchodilators and long-acting beta agonists can all reduce airway inflammation and improve breathing.

To Larché, a complete allergy cure comes down to this: Remove the pet. “At the end of the day, if there’s a cat in the house, it will cause problems.”