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.
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
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 your 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!