Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Beyond Fur And Feathers

Much has been written about the health benefits of pet ownership. However, for people with pet allergies, finding animal companionship that they can live with can be a challenge -- so it seemed like a breakthrough when a biotechnology company in Los Angeles called Allerca, Inc., announced that through bioengineering technology it is producing the worlds first hypoallergenic cats. Allerca cats will be produced by genetically suppressing the gene that produces the major cat allergen, Fel d1, in a British shorthair cat. Unfortunately, because there are many allergens in animals, Allercats may not be completely allergen free. According to allergist Linda B. Ford, MD, past president of the American Lung Association, people have a wide range of sensitivity to animal proteins -- some may not be sensitive to Fel d1 at all, but may be sensitive to another protein. Should that be the case, they will be allergic to the modified cats. Furthermore, while sensitivity can show up right away, it also can take several years of cumulative exposure to set in. This means that people who are interested in purchasing the new cats (for at least a whopping $3,500) should adopt a buyer-beware mentality. Is there any hope for pet-loving allergy sufferers?
People with mild allergies might have success with so-called furless dogs, such as whippets and boxers, or those with hair-like fur, including bichons frises, Maltese and Yorkshire terriers. Another option is to try pets that supposedly don't shed, such as poodles. If you've got your heart set on owning a dog or a cat, studies have shown that washing an animal at least once a week with plain water helps reduce the amount of allergens, because bathing gets some of the dander down the drain instead of into the air. (Special animal shampoos are available, but Dr. Ford says they have not been tested adequately for her to make a statement about them.) Additionally, she says that small animals are better -- the smaller the pet the smaller the amount of dander -- and they are easier to clean, so owners are more likely to wash them regularly. Animals that have shorter hair have less dander. Some studies have shown that female animals seem to trigger fewer allergic reactions, but Dr. Ford says that these are small studies, and more of them are needed to establish this. A unique suggestion comes from Diana Geiger, exotic pet editor of the popular magazine Web site Bellaonline.com and supervisor of a variety of animals at the McFarland Living History Ranch in Galt, California. She suggests ferrets (except in California and Hawaii, where theyre illegal as pets) due to their loving nature, and the fact that they have fewer allergens than cats. However, she warns people to have the ferrets scent gland removed or they will emit an unpleasant odor. Geiger says that de-scented skunks also are social and fun, but like Dr. Ford, she stresses that allergens are in the skin cells of animals, and obviously every animal, hairless or otherwise, has skin. In short, she reminds people with pronounced allergies to avoid any pets with fur or feathers. This includes birds, rabbits and all rodents, such as mice, guinea pigs and gerbils. If you dont know if youre allergic to animals, but you have asthma or hay fever or a family history of these, Dr. Ford advises getting tested for animal allergies before you get a pet. Having to get rid of a pet is a sad experience. If you discover that you are too allergic to keep an animal, you must be sure to take it to where the pet will be well cared for.
Although it might seem that the picture is bleak, there is hope beyond fur and feathers. Geiger says that the bearded dragon lizard is a wonderful creature. It is not too big and has a sweet disposition, unlike an iguana, which tends to be snappier. You wont be able to nuzzle your bearded dragon, though, since it must be kept in a cage for its own safety -- it can hide in the tiniest places... get lost, stepped on or injured... or get outside the house. And a bearded dragon lizard will not come when called.
Note: Salmonella can be a serious problem when cleaning cages, equipment, food dishes and anything else that a reptile may use, so make sure that the area and any utensils are disinfected. It is not a good idea to use the kitchen to clean equipment because it could contaminate food. Always wash your hands after handling a reptile. Fish also are a favorite of Geiger's -- you can get all sorts of colorful and unusual fish. They are endlessly interesting and soothing to watch. Just dont get a salt-water tank, she cautions, unless you are prepared to take on the time and expense of maintaining it. While dogs and cats are traditionally the fun pets, the health benefits of caring for a pet can be had from all sorts of living creatures. And some of them make for interesting conversation as well.


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