Pet allergies and pet hygiene

According to the charity Allergy UK, pets are now one of the major causes of allergic disease.

In the UK, pets are the second most important cause of allergy in the home with half of all asthmatic children allergic to cats, while 40% are allergic to dogs. Rabbits, hamsters and other furry domestic pets can also cause allergies in these children.

About half of all households in the UK have a pet, with cats (10 million) and dogs (7 million) the most common.

Not only can pets trigger allergies, vets say pet owners need to be aware of the possible spread of diseases from domestic animals.

Allergies caused by animals

Animal allergens are a common cause of indoor allergic reactions. Allergic reactions are caused by animal saliva, skin and urine. When animals groom themselves, they lick, and saliva coats the skin, fur or feathers. Skin cells covered in saliva (‘animal dander’) are shed along with loose hairs and fur. This is the case for all breeds and even those described as 'hairless' still have allergens found in dander from skin sources.

Although there are conflicting studies over whether or not growing up in a household of pets can exacerbate allergy symptoms or help to protect children, the advice remains that, for those who have eczema, hay fever or asthma, removing pets is the best advice, even if there is no obvious allergy to them at present.

Those who have allergic symptoms but aren't sure what the cause may be can benefit from the free NHS allergy-testing service.

For those who have a proven allergy to their pets, the best advice is to remove the pet from your home.

This can be a difficult and distressing decision to make and it may take some time to find your pet a new home, or if they are older you may decide to put up with the symptoms for a little longer. Allergy UK has the following advice for reducing allergic symptoms caused by pets:

  • Do not obtain any new pets.
  • Restrict pets to outdoors or to limited areas in the house – certainly not in the bedroom.
  • Wash cats and dogs regularly.
  • Keep your pets healthy and well-groomed (where appropriate).
  • People who are in contact with animals outside the home (such as horses, or other people's cats or dogs) should change their shoes and clothes, and wash their hair, when arriving home.
  • If possible, remove carpets from rooms where pets are kept. Vacuum floors regularly. Remaining carpets should be cleaned with a high-temperature steam cleaner and vacuumed regularly with a high-filtration (HEPA) vacuum cleaner.
  • Clean all surfaces (including walls) regularly.
  • Wash all pet bedding and baskets regularly.

Infections from pets

Infections and diseases can be passed from animals to people. Although this is rare, examples include:

  • Ringworm: a fungal infection of the skin that can be passed on from dogs, cats and hamsters. People who work with animals are more prone to the infection.
  • Toxocariasis: an infection caused by worms found in dog and cat faeces (poo).
  • Toxoplasmosis: caused by a parasite found in cat faeces. It can also be found in undercooked and infected meat and can be spread by using contaminated kitchen utensils.

The most common way to get an infection from an animal is by being bitten, or by close contact with its faeces.

There is also a very small chance of an infection being spread through contaminated water or food. Read more about food hygiene

Tips on pets and hygiene

Follow these general pet hygiene tips to reduce your family's risk of infection. 

  • Wash your hands thoroughly. Always use an antibacterial soap after handling your pets (this is essential before preparing food).
  • Teach children to always wash their hands. You could wipe their hands with a cleaning wipe, especially before they eat anything.
  • Make sure children stay away from dog and cat faeces. Don’t let children play around a litter tray and stay clear of dog litter bins at the park.
  • Check that your pets are in good health. Immunisations should be up-to-date. Regular check-ups at the vets can also spot any possible infections.
  • Keep your pet’s fur clean. This may simply involve cleaning their paws if they've dug up any soil or a thorough shampoo after swimming in the local pond.

Page last reviewed: 09/11/2014

Next review due: 09/11/2016

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