My Top 10 Tips for Dealing with Pet Allergies in Your Family

by | Oct 29, 2019 | Uncategorized | 21 comments

Merchandise is Here!

What happens when pet allergies hit your family–and affect your marriage?

I know that’s not one of my usual topics, but so many people around me are really affected by pet allergies, and as we enter the holiday season, I thought it might be a good topic to talk about.

I was really affected by allergies growing up, since in my extended family were such bad allergies that we could never have pets if we wanted to ever see them. So when I married Keith, who was also allergic, it wasn’t really a big deal to me to not have pets. I grew up accommodating pet allergies. And then when Rebecca also had a bad cat allergy (though she was spared being allergic to most dogs), it didn’t really affect us. 

But what if you’re an animal person, and then pet allergies strike?

That’s what happened to Joanna recently, and I asked her to write it up, in the hopes that we can talk more about it in the comments. so here’s Joanna!


I grew up with pets – I took several separate trips back from college to say goodbye to my beloved cat Whiskers and we almost always had a dog, wagging to greet us.

My husband, Josiah, has family members with pet allergies, so he grew up with rabbits. When we moved to Belleville last year from a horse and alpaca farm, we got a pet bunny, who was a wonderful balm for my soul as we said goodbye to all of our animal friends.

Pet Allergies and Kids: When kids can't handle your pets

Fast forward to this summer and my daughter had been struggling with eczema that I couldn’t get to go away, in addition to food allergies. We realized, to our horror, that her eczema got significantly worse whenever she spent time with our rabbit: she is allergic. We went back to our fabulous allergist to confirm and, yes, she has allergies to dogs, cats, and (sob) bunnies. We re-homed the bunny with an absolutely wonderful family and she is living her best bunny life in Toronto at the recommendation of our allergist.

Having to get rid of a pet because of allergies while working for a marriage blog got me thinking about how pet allergies can affect our marriages.

Here are my thoughts – 10 principles to keep in mind about pet allergies and marriage

Dealing with Pet Allergies in Your Extended Family

1. Talk about your experience with animals early in your relationship

If you’re looking for a significant other, talk to potential partners about your experiences and expectations with animals early in your relationship. Maybe, like my husband, you had a traumatic experience with a large dog as a small child and are nervous around them. Or perhaps, like me, you’ve grown up with pets. Maybe, for you, “must love dogs” is a dealbreaker. That’s totally fine. But know that going in so that you don’t create unnecessary heartbreak.

2. People come before animals

While we loved our bunny, we loved our baby more. Clearing up her eczema was more important than keeping the bunny in our home. Obviously, the best outcome is for the pet and allergic person to be able to coexist in the same home without any medication, but if that isn’t possible, then the human’s needs are more important.

3. For a mild allergy, try keeping the pet in a restricted area

Only 20% of pet owners who discover that they are allergic to their furry friend will re-home them. My dad is mildly allergic to cats and the fix that we came up with was for Whiskers to move into my bedroom, instead of having him go to live with a new family. That totally fixed the problem. We also kept our rabbit entirely sequestered in the basement because of Keith’s significant rabbit allergy, because we wanted Keith and Sheila to be able to visit. Even keeping a pet out of the bedroom and leaving the door shut to keep dander out can make a big difference when it comes to allergy symptoms.

4. Recognize the importance of pets in modern life

Pets are a wonderful part of our lives. I love going to my parents’ house for lots of reasons (my parents themselves chief among them) but the absolute freak out of joy from Lucy the dog that greets us when we arrive makes the long trip feel SO worth it. The love that we get from our animals is absolutely wonderful and they push us to be better people and make healthier choices. Fido needs to be walked, rain or shine. For many people who struggle with mental illness, having someone to think about outside of their disordered thoughts can be clarifying and freeing. Pets are fabulous, important, and a great benefit.

5. Medication and re-homing

My daughter’s dog allergy is, thank the Lord, not currently debilitating. We are able to visit and stay with family that has dogs with no issues, other than a bit of medication.

Because of the increased risk of asthma for children who reside with an animal they are allergic to, we needed to re-home her. If you or your loved one discovers you are allergic to a beloved pet, consider your options with medication and discuss the risks and benefits with your healthcare team. Additionally, and especially if your allergies get in the way of your life, consider allergy shots which decrease your reaction to environmental allergens like pets and pollen.

6. Pets and Extended Families

Joining the ranks of the allergy-mom club has opened my eyes to a variety of thorny issues I hadn’t truly appreciated before. A big one is the difficulty of traveling with allergies. Luckily medication works for us when it comes to allergies, but if it doesn’t for your spouse, consider staying with friends or in a hotel. Alternatively, play host to family gatherings as much as possible. It also is important to talk to your family – my parents’ dog stays out of the room where we sleep when we visit if we’re not there and she isn’t allowed on the furniture.

 

 

Sometimes extended family doesn’t understand how badly allergic you, your spouse, or your kids are to a pet. Pretty much everyone in our extended family has cats, but they know that Keith can’t handle it, and they don’t blame him for that or make him feel guilty, and they understand when we have to leave early.

But some families aren’t so lucky. That’s when heartbreak really sets in, because it feels as if they’re choosing their pet over you. I know that’s been an issue in our broader extended family at times. Often they think that  you’re making something big out of nothing. But when a child ends up in the ER with an asthma attack, it is a big deal. So even if your extended family makes you feel guilty, stand your ground, especially on behalf of your kids.

Sheila Wray Gregoire

7. What if the allergy isn’t in my immediate family?

Another big issue people run into is wanting to get a pet when a close member of their extended family is allergic. This is a thorny, difficult issue and I don’t feel that a one-size-fits-all approach is correct. First of all, I would consider the amount of damage to your relationship that would be caused by getting a pet to which they are allergic. They may, understandably, feel rejected and hurt by your choice and so you need to be very upfront and transparent with them about your choice and different people will react to you getting a pet differently. Recognize that if you choose to get a pet, they may not be able to visit you anymore, especially if their allergies are severe. It may be that the benefits of a pet outweigh the downsides for you, but be aware. And be sure to think down the road, too. If your mother-in-law has allergies and you’d like her to eventually come and visit her newborn grandchild… that will be a lot less doable if there’s a pet who she has allergies to in your home.

 

For us, this is a huge issue. Keith just can’t be around any cats and most dogs. His parents have a cat, and he and Rebecca have to medicate before family meals, and then we can only stay a few hours before his asthma gets too bad.

When Rebecca and Connor wanted to get a dog, they had to keep Keith’s allergies in mind, and so they chose a yorkshire terrier, which is hypoallergenic. But they were also aware that their baby may end up being allergic, because of all the allergies on almost all sides of their family. They didn’t want to get a dog that they would one day have to get rid of because of baby.

They wanted us to be able to help with baby, stay overnight, and visit baby, and so that meant a golden retriever was out of the picture! But luckily Winston, their yorkie, is adorable.

Sheila Wray Gregoire

8. Consider hypoallergenic!

No pet is truly hypoallergenic from a scientific perspective. But anecdotally, Keith is able to hang out with Winston with no problems at all. My daughter, though, has a dog allergy and does get eczema even around hypoallergenic dogs, though she doesn’t get hives. It may definitely be worth trying a hypoallergenic breed with people in your life who have allergies. Keep in mind that if you truly want hypoallergenic, it is best to go with a purebread poodle, shih tzu, or yorkie, as they are less likely to cause allergies than a designer breed like a golden doodle.

The Lindenbach family–with the baby bump just a LITTLE visible.

9. Find ways to enjoy pets that don’t flare allergies

My daughter, like most small kids, LOVES animals. But as she’s allergic to anything fuzzy, I’ve had to get creative. We read books about animals, I let her watch youtube clips of puppies when we’re taking a quick snuggle break, and we talk up the dogs in our life that we get to go visit whenever we can. If you’re visiting family with a pet and you have allergies, keep the party outside so that the allergens are more diluted and so that you stay away from the dander filled home.

Pet Allergies--keep the pets outside.

10. Extend grace

These topics are emotional. People who love pets have terrifically strong bonds with them and simultaneously, people with pet allergies often come to dislike the animals that make them feel sick. Both of these perspectives are logical and totally fair. But they’re also at odds with each other. As animals become bigger and bigger parts of modern life, it’s important to remember to extend grace to each other and to try to see the world through another person’s eyes.

There you have it, 10 principles to keep in mind about pet allergies and marriage. Do you have any experiences with this difficult problem? Let me know in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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21 Comments

  1. Melissa

    Husband and I both grew up with dogs, and my family had cats off and on. We’re more dog people, which is not a bad thing since our oldest child is severely allergic to cats. He does okay with dogs, some mild allergies but easy to control, but five minutes around a cat and he starts sneezing and his eyes puff up. He also had major food allergies. I learned some time ago that it’s best for me to just put it all out there. That’s where social media has worked on my favor. As we’ve learned more about his allergies, I’ve written a couple of Facebook posts explaining it and that if we bring our own food to an event or ask a million questions, it’s not us being pushy or mistrusting, it’s just us making sure our son can enjoy himself safely. Unfortunately we just can’t spend a lot of time in houses with cats right now. It is what it is. I respect people’s love for their pets and when I’m open about our son’s allergies they respect that we have to do what’s best for our son. As long as everyone on both sides is open and understanding, we have found issues to be minimal.

    Reply
    • Joanna Sawatsky

      I’m glad you’ve been able to make it work with family! And I’m so sorry about the food allergies – they are so stressful.

      I think that’s the one thing I didn’t appreciate about allergies before dealing with them as a mom – it’s a lot of thinking and vigilance and it gets tiring. Hope you can keep on keeping on and that your sweet guy grows out of his allergies for you!

      Reply
      • Melissa

        Yeah it’s a lot to deal with. We spent the summer adjusting to some new allergies and have gotten pretty well into the swing of things. His school is so awesome about food allergies and he’s starting to self advocate which is fantastic. The hardest part for me as a mom has been wanting to make him feel as normal as possible, but there are times when he gets frustrated because he just wants to be able to eat what other kids are eating and we have to say no. It’s hard for a kiddo. But we do our best.

        Reply
        • Joanna Sawatsky

          So glad it’s going well for you — and yes, I’m sure it’s hard when your child wants to be able to experience everything but allergies hold him back. My daughter is still a toddler, so we haven’t had to deal with that yet. But it sounds like you’re able to talk openly and honestly about things, which is so incredibly important! Keep on keeping on 🙂

          Reply
  2. Kacey

    I love pets. I grew up with dogs and a cat and to me, home isn’t quite home without at least one. No one in my family has pet allergies, either, which made things easy.

    However, I’ve been sad to discover several people in my church community group have cat allergies, which means I can’t host. It’s not a big problem, but it put things in perspective for me for the first time.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, allergies were always a part of my family, and we’ve had to host a LOT because almost everyone we knew had cats. So we often became the default hangout, especially when the kids were teens (Rebecca just can’t do cats). It came in handy when billeting other youth groups in our town, though. We always got the pet allergy kids!

      Reply
  3. Nathan

    My wife and I each grew up in cat and dog families. No allergies for us, but we had one cat that had a lot of dander, so we always had to ask babysitters and so on about THEIR allergies. Luckily for us, that cat spent most of her time on one particular room, so if anybody DID have allergies, we just told them “stay out of the dining room”.

    Reply
  4. Lydia purple

    I can‘t stand pet hair, so dogs and cats are a no go for me… but my kids wanted pets, so for a while we had gold fish for fun, and now we have guinea pigs which we keep outside. They love cuddles and are more resilient than hamsters, so they’re perfect for kids.

    We‘ve had guests with allergies but because the guinea pigs are outside in a contained space this is not an issue.

    Also since they live in a group they are really fun for the kids to observe as they have a variety of interactions and a language of their own.

    Reply
  5. Rebecca B.

    I LOVE that you wrote about this! Unfortunately for me, my husband’s side of the family puts their pets above me and my husband – both of us have animal allergies. I also have asthma and eczema, which are both severely impacted by pets. The animals come first, in everything – holidays, road trips, vacations.
    We’ve mentioned it countless times, but since his parents both grew up with no allergies, they brush it off and don’t realize it’s hurtful and very uncomfortable. I’m hoping it doesn’t take a trip to the ER for them to learn to leave their pets at home! We just suffer for now, but I know our kids will probably have one or more of our allergies, and I’ll go mama bear for them!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Rebecca, that’s tough! I’ve seen that happen in my much wider extended family (my extended family totally gets it). They think you’re just being a hypochondriac, but honestly, asthma attacks can be dangerous! And hives are not fun. So they actually bring pets to your home? That’s awful! I’m sorry. It does feel then that they don’t really love you, doesn’t it?

      Reply
    • Joanna Sawatsky

      Oh my goodness I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this! That sounds so difficult.

      Reply
  6. Kari

    For those that don’t deal with pet allergies, please also be aware that keeping your pet out of the main room your guests are in won’t be helpful to everyone – it depends on the severity of their allergies.

    Cat dander, for example, gets everywhere, and can take 4 months to be gone from a home once the cat is removed. It transfers on you, your clothing, your furniture, curtains, etc. My allergy is incredibly severe, and I can’t even step into a house where there is a cat!

    I know it sounds crazy that people can be that sensitive, and it causes a lot of hoops to jump through, but it sure is appreciated when people are understanding and go above and beyond to keep me safe!

    Reply
    • Joanna Sawatsky

      Great point! My husband was on a charter bus as a teen when another student touched the hand of someone who had cats, and immediately went into anaphylaxis. It’s so important to be aware of the wide range of pet allergies out there. Glad you’ve got people in your life who are understanding and supportive.

      Reply
  7. Arwen

    Please, don’t ever think any topic is “unusual” for your blog Sheila. I love reading everything you and your guests write and it’s so edifying and brings verity to a wonderful blog.

    Although i don’t have pet allergies like Lydia purple above, I CAN’T STAND PET HAIRS!!!!! You see, that wouldn’t be a problem in my country where people keep their pets outside, but here in America where pets live right alongside you (which shocked me by the way) has added additional burden on my dating life. But my reasoning is if my future husband wants the pet he should do all the cleaning up, vacuuming, removing all the shedding, etc.

    But i know that’s a futile wish because reading marriage blogs has taught me that the average man is LAZY! I have a neighbor that collects cats and after every petting session i look at my cloths and cringe in horror at the amount of fur i’m covered in. Hopefully, i can find ONE American guy who shares the same views as me, fortunately there is a LOT of diversity in America, i think i’ll be fine. Otherwise pets are a deal breaker for me. I LOVE them, i pet them every opportunity i get, always look for them when i’m at people’s houses, but like grand kids, i know they won’t be around me 24/7 and i can go back to a hairless, clean, house.

    Reply
  8. Lizette

    I want to add that for those with more mild pet allergies, cleanliness can play a big factor in the severity of the reaction. I am mildly allergic to cats (my reaction to cats is itchy swollen eyes, itchy skin, and sneezing/runny nose), but it’s worth it to me to have a cat, anyway.

    However, as long as I keep the house clean and regularly vacuumed and wiped down, and bathe my cat frequently (i.e. at least once a month), I find that I don’t have much of an issue with allergies, and my friends with pet allergies have commented that they are surprised that they don’t have problems at my house, either.

    P.S. It’s really the bath that does the trick. Once it’s been more than 3 weeks since the cat’s last bath, it’s back to allergy meds for me! 😉

    Reply
    • Joanna Sawatsky

      Yes – this is 100% true! Good idea with the bath!

      Reply
  9. Elsie

    Thanks for this post! My husband has moderate to severe eczema plus pet allergies (pets also intensify the eczema in addition to causing nasal congestion, etc). It’s been a challenge recently as more friends start to get pets. Even going to other people’s homes for Bible study can be tough on my husband. Joanna, I don’t know if you are aware of the National Eczema Association – they are a great patient advocacy group and resource for patients and families

    Reply
    • Joanna Sawatsky

      Thanks for the suggestion – I’ll give them a look. I wish we had realized that my daughter’s eczema was caused by a pet earlier – glad we finally sorted it out, but it took us a lot longer than it needed to.

      So sorry you’re finding the allergies get in the way of finding community! I hope you’re able to find some folks who don’t have pets who you can visit easily, without having to stress!

      Reply
  10. Sheep

    Some things to keep in mind when looking for “hypoallergenic” dog.
    1. No animal is technically hypoallergenic. There are some that are very allergy friendly though. This means that most people with dog allergies will not be allergic to them. (this doesn’t apply to people that are allergic to saliva)
    2. Breeding makes a huge difference. Get your dog from a reputable breeder that only breeds Multi-Generational dogs. Don’t buy from backyard breeders that don’t do DNA testing on their dogs. Talking about a Labradoodle breed, you want to keep clear of first or second generation dogs (F1 and F2) Some of these dogs will have the allergy properties you are looking for but others will not. You want a dog that has had the allergy causing issues bred out of it.
    3. Ask a potential breeder if they can do a “t-shirt” test. You would send them one of your freshly laundered t-shirts and they would put the shirt with the potential mother or litter you are looking at. They send it back and then you wear the shirt. If someone is going to have a reaction it will usually show up fairly quickly.

    Reply
    • Joanna Sawatsky

      Thanks for these suggestions – they are an excellent resource!

      Yes – my daughter is allergic to dog saliva and it seems to be truly equal opportunity. I’m hoping she grows out of it as she’s dog obsessed and we love animals, too. If she grows out of it enough to handle a hypoallergenic dog, we’ll follow your suggestions, for sure 🙂

      Reply
  11. LM

    I don’t have allergies to animals, but like Joanna’s husband, had an incident with a dog when I was little. Coupled with my mom’s definite distrust and dislike of dogs, I have become the same. My husband’s family has a pack of “wild” (my words) dogs–mixed breeds–that come bolting while barking and growling whenever anyone new comes. The first time I went to his family’s house alone, the pack came running and the leader (a Jack Russell terrier) lept up and bit my wrist. We hung out at his family’s on Sunday afternoons the first few months after marriage, but I was always very on edge and couldn’t relax. They’d put the dogs away in a room, but someone would always accidentally open the door, and the pack would make a running beeline for me. After we had our first baby and she was old enough to want to be rolling around on the (filthy dog) floor, I kinda put my foot down and said it wasn’t safe (or sanitary) for our children–we have 3 littles now–to go to their house. We see them every week at church and most family events are either in our church’s fellowship hall or at my hubby’s grandma’s house close by. For the most part, everything is fine, but every now and then the dog/’why don’t you come to our house and bring the grandbabies’ issue comes up. Emotions are high, and I feel like I’m the bad guy in the situation. The “stuck up, wimpy” city girl (who married a farm boy). 😌

    Reply

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