Are hypoallergenic pets a real thing?

Salon asked experts whether you can you really breed a dog or cat to be hypoallergenic

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 23, 2022 7:30PM (EDT)

Cute Maltese dog relaxing on sofa (Getty Images/mixetto)
Cute Maltese dog relaxing on sofa (Getty Images/mixetto)

The world is full of animal lovers who must enjoy animals from afar. Indeed, roughly 10 to 20 percent of the world's population is allergic to dogs, while 10 to 14 percent of Americans are allergic to cats. Allergy symptoms include nasal congestion, sneezing, running nose, red and watery eyes, itchiness and other forms of discomfort and pain. As your body struggles with your immune system's overreaction to the pet dander, the rest of your health takes a toll. While some choose to endure the misery, many allergic animal-lovers wish for a world where they could hang out with their furry companions (who, in a post-climate change world, will need more care than ever) and not endure allergies.

"No published scientific evidence indicates that such animals truly exist."

Such is the promise of so-called hypoallergenic dogs and cats, or animals that are supposedly bred to not trigger allergic states in people. The idea of a hypoallergenic dog or cat breed has become relatively normalized. In 2009, President Obama famously adopted a Portuguese Water Dog, Bo, because its reputation as a hypoallergenic breed meant it would accommodate his allergic daughter Malia. 

That there is a market for hypoallergenic dogs are cats is self-evident. The problem? "Hypoallergenic" dogs and cats don't actually exist.

It all comes down to biology. When a human experiences an allergic reaction to the dander produced by a dog or cat, it is because of a protein created by that specific animal. This same protein can, not coincidentally, also be found in other bodily fluids produced by the animal. The hair or fur on the animal has no bearing on whether the allergen comes off of its body.

Salon reached out to the University of South Florida's Dr. Richard Lockey, who in 2012 co-authored a paper on the subject for the peer-reviewed journal Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Aptly titled "Do hypoallergenic cats and dogs exist?" Lockey and his fellow researchers explained their unambiguous conclusion: "No published scientific evidence indicates that such animals truly exist."

Lockey and his co-authors explain that 60 percent to 90 percent of people who are allergic to cats are reacting to an allergen known as "Fel d 1," leading to symptoms of allergic rhinitis and allergic asthma. The main allergy-inducing proteins produced by dogs, "Can f 1" and "Can f 2," have similar effects on susceptible patients.

Lockey and the other researchers strongly emphasize removing a pet from a home as a solution if someone living there is allergic. Because most of those co-habitating with pets are averse to leaving behind a pet, they suggest thorough cleaning regimens and regular baths for the animal as less effective substitutes.

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"Animal allergy can affect allergic eczema, allergic rhino conjunctivitis and allergic asthma," Lockey wrote to Salon. Lockey reiterated that he advises removing a dog or cat from the home of someone who is allergic; but, if that is not possible, he suggests keeping the pet out of the bed and bedroom.

"It takes up to six months to de-cat or de-dog a home, after the pet is excluded, regardless of where the pet lives in the home. There is no documented evidence that keeping the cat or dog out of the bedroom helps, but it makes sense," Lockey added.

Locky was sympathetic to the strong underlying resistance that many of those with pet allergies have to getting rid of their pet. 

"Emotional attachment to an animal today is much different than when I was a resident," he said. "Animals were excluded from homes for the most part at that time because homes became contaminated with fleas — hard to get rid of — and we did not have as many excellent medications to treat hay fever, allergic eczema, and asthma."

Now that medications and "shots" exist, Lockey observed, there is less risk to living with an animal while you are allergic — but still nowhere near zero risk.

 "Can f 1, the main dog allergen, is present in all dog breeds, even hypoallergenic ones."

"All are very effective but of course, avoidance of any potential allergen — in this case, cat and dog and other animal dander — is the treatment of choice," Lockey wrote.

Molly H. Sumridge, an assistant professor of anthrozoology at Carroll College, told Salon by email that the evidence on the subject is "mixed," noting that "most owners of hypoallergenic dogs perceive fewer symptoms even though allergen exposure is the same" and that this is also true "with hypoallergenic cats and the Fel f 1 feline allergen." Yet Sumridge added that the science still leans against them.

"Most of the scientific literature states that there are no true hypoallergenic pets," Sumridge wrote to Salon. "Can f 1, the main dog allergen, is present in all dog breeds, even hypoallergenic ones. It is also found in many non-dog or limited dog spaces like classrooms, airplanes, and in the homes of individuals who do not own dogs. Dogs are just so common their allergens get everywhere."

The underlying ethical question, then, is whether it is harmful to people with pet allergies if they buy a dog which they think is "hypoallergenic." If they believe their symptoms are alleviated around the animal, does that count for something? Is it ethical for these dogs to be sold as hypoallergenic at all?

Lockey does not think so.

"Selling anything which is not what the customer thinks they are getting or wants, is fraud, and should be so treated," Lockey told Salon. "It is just like selling me a car or home without disclosing what you know about the defects, one or the other."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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