Runny eyes, a runny nose, and sneezing are all classic signs of a person who is allergic to dogs. But can a dog be allergic to people? Is that even a thing?
Yes. And it may be more common than you think. After all, dogs can be allergic to the same types of things people can: pollen, food, and animal dander. And people are technically animals that produce dander.
But until recently, few people considered the possibility that we could be making our dogs itchy and scratchy. Even now, dogs that are allergic to people may go their entire lives being simply labeled as having “generalized atopy,” when the real culprit is right under our noses—literally.
The condition seems to be diagnosed more often, according to Valerie Fadok, DVM, a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Dermatologists. “In my last practice, between 2013 and 2015, we found that 30 percent of our canine and feline patients were allergic to human dander,” she says. “This is one practice, and not what I consider hard data, but is suggestive.”
She believes there are a few reasons why human-allergic dogs may be more commonly diagnosed. The first is that dogs are now being tested for human allergies now.
“I suspect we might be seeing more reactions to human dander now because more dogs and cats are sleeping in the bed with their owners,” Dr. Fadok says. “When I started out as a young vet, we had no modern flea control. At that time, not many dogs were in the bed with their owners. Excellent flea control has led to dogs and cats becoming closer to their families and sleeping in their beds.”
We tend to think of shedded hair for the reason for allergies, but even though people don’t have much hair as dogs, it doesn’t mean they don’t shed allergy-causing dander. In fact, it’s dander that causes allergies in both people and dogs. Dander refers to the tiny particles of skin constantly shed by mammals and birds. More technically, according to the American Lung Association, it’s the proteins attached to the dander that cause allergic reactions. These same proteins are found in saliva, urine, and feces.
However, an owner should never make a diagnostic conclusion on their own. Always consult with your veterinarian at least and then a board-certified veterinary dermatologist to determine whether or not the allergy is human dander or something else more pressing.
What Are the Signs Your Dog is Allergic to You?
You won’t be able to tell whether your dog is allergic to you based on symptoms alone because they’re the same signs you would see no matter what the cause of allergies. On dogs, allergies most often manifest as itchy skin and less commonly, respiratory, or gastrointestinal signs. The signs of an allergy to humans could include:
- Scratching and licking (especially around the groin, anus, eyes, muzzle ears, paws, and underarms)
- Moist, crusted, or bare skin
- Runny nose or eyes, sneezing
You may start to suspect that you’re the cause if your dog’s signs are not seasonal or related to diet. Generally, our dogs share our homes and lives, so unless they are separated from human contact it’s hard to rule out human dander as the cause. But if your dog has to spend a week or more in a kennel or outdoors, and returns significantly improved only to regress once back in the house, you might start considering it.
A veterinary dermatologist can perform intradermal allergy testing to determine which of several suspected allergens are at fault. Intradermal testing is painless and quick but does usually require sedation as it involves small injections of the allergens in precisely marked spots on your dog’s side or abdomen. The spots that become inflamed and red designate which allergens the dog has a problem with. If the human allergen spot reacts, it signals that your dog is allergic to people. This type of testing is considered the gold standard but has the drawback of requiring your dog not to be on any medications that would reduce allergic responses.
Saliva, fur, and blood serum tests are also available, and generally less expensive, but differ as to their usefulness. “I think the blood serum tests for human dander are accurate,” says Fadok, adding, “Keep in mind that no test is 100 percent correct. Each of our serum companies has a different methodology. I believe a positive reaction can be reliable; a negative reaction may or may not be accurate.”
Fadok does not recommend saliva or fur-based tests, however. “There’s no evidence that saliva or fur testing is accurate. I would not rely on it for my own dogs, so would not recommend it to a client.”
What to Do if Your Dog is Allergic to People
While this sounds like a terrible thing for your best buddy, there are ways to make it better. The most drastic, of course, is to make your dog live outdoors or in a separate kennel area. Obviously, if your dog is already a house dog, this may not be an acceptable choice for either of you. Thankfully, there are ways to make your life together less allergenic.
First, work on the environment:
- Bathe and shampoo often. Not the dog, you! The more of your dander you can wash down the drain, the better. This won’t cure the problem, but it will help. Shaving your body hair, however, won’t alleviate your dog’s allergies.
- Clean and vacuum as much as possible. Dander from everyone—pets and people—in your household floats in the air and settles as dust everywhere.
- Get rid of non-washable rugs and upholstery with clingy fabrics such as velvet. Choose instead washable throw rugs, furniture covers, or slick upholstery, such as leather, that dander doesn’t stick to.
- Don’t share your bed with your dog. But if you must, change your bedding frequently, and don’t let your dog sleep under the covers.
- Open windows to increase cross ventilation. This may not be an option if your dog is also allergic to pollens.
- Consider air purifiers with HEPA filters.
- Dogs that are allergic to people are often allergic to other things, so control as many of these allergens as well.
Second, and most importantly, work on the dog:
- Administer a series of “allergy shots” (allergen-specific immunotherapy vaccines). These daily or weekly shots contain a small but gradually increasing amount of human allergen that allows your dog’s immune system to adjust. There is also a “rush” option in which the injections are given under veterinary supervision every half hour. It will take weeks to months or even a year for full desensitization, but about two-thirds of dogs will react favorably. Very rarely, the shots can cause an anaphylactic response, so if you are giving them yourself at home, your vet should also supply an epinephrine pen (epi-pen) in case of emergency. Newer delivery methods include giving it as drops under the tongue or injecting it (often guided by ultrasound) into a lymph node.
- Calm the skin with hypoallergenic shampoo and cortisone cream. This will help the skin recover and the dog to feel better as quickly as possible, and make results from the allergy shots more evident. Your veterinarian can suggest over-the-counter products or prescribe more specialized ones. These are not a cure, but do help with symptoms.
- Supplements such as Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids can help reduce inflammation.
- Give antihistamines to quell allergic reactions. Talk to your veterinarian for suggestions of antihistamines that are effective with the fewest side effects. For example, diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is very effective for short-term use but will make your dog too drowsy for long-term use.
- Talk to your veterinarian about medications such as cyclosporine or immunomodulators that can reduce itching without the side effects of long-term corticosteroid use. Cytopoint is a popular treatment that involves an injection given every four to eight weeks. It can reduce itching within 24 hours by neutralizing the protein that causes your dog’s skin to itch. Cytopoint works for about 75 percent of dogs Even if a current product doesn’t help, check back as new and better products are being introduced.
- Treat any open sores from scratching and chewing immediately with antibiotic or antifungal medications.
It’s certainly upsetting to find out your dog is allergic to you! But given a choice, your dog would choose to spend more time with you even if it means some itching and scratching—just as many of us find a runny nose is worth sharing our lives with our dogs.