Finding a new dog isn’t trivial, and I’m often faced with questions about the process. There are so many variables to consider. Should you adopt a puppy or rescue an adult? What size dog best fits your lifestyle? Some questions have easier answers than others, and many require a degree of generalization that makes me uncomfortable. I can never say for sure that a certain breed will be good with children or that your choice will be easier to house train. But there is one thing I do know for sure: You can give up on your search for a hypoallergenic breed.
Allergies to pets are a very real thing. For many, the symptoms are some mild sniffling and sneezing. But more severe reactions are possible, ranging from rashes to asthma attacks. It is understandable that people afflicted with such allergies might want assurance that their new best friend isn’t going to be a medical liability. And that’s why it is vitally important to make this clear: As pervasive as the idea has become, there is absolutely no evidence that some breeds are hypoallergenic.
Don’t put away the tissues just yet.
Research has shown absolutely no difference in the presence of allergens in homes with supposedly hypoallergenic dogs compared to homes with “regular” ones.
Allergies happen when the immune system overreacts to something that wouldn’t otherwise be a threat. In this case, proteins in a dog’s skin or saliva are the trigger. While direct contact with dogs can produce symptoms, it isn’t necessary. Microscopic flakes of skin are constantly being shed from any animal. These particles, collectively called dander, will spread well beyond the dog’s reach. Some will remain suspended in the air, waiting to be inhaled. Others settle on clothing or furniture, ready to trigger skin allergies on contact.
While many breeds of dog are advertised as hypoallergenic, the most common ones seem to be those perceived as shedding less. The idea is that if they aren’t filling your home with fur, then they must not be filling it with dander either. It’s a completely reasonable supposition. Unfortunately, it also turns out to be a false one. Research has shown absolutely no difference in the presence of allergens in homes with supposedly hypoallergenic dogs compared to homes with “regular” ones.
Wittingly or not, breeders have seized on the popularity of hypoallergenic breeds. These dogs are often sold at premium prices to families willing to spend thousands of dollars for a perceived medical necessity. These families deserve to know that they are buying into a fiction.
If someone in your family does suffer from pet allergies, it is important to speak to your physician or allergist before adding a dog or cat to your home. Perhaps the allergy is mild enough to be managed with air filters, designated pet-free rooms, or medication. But the decision and its consequences are too important to revolve around a myth.
Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.