The other day, I was listening through some back episodes of the Judge John Hodgman podcast (which, PS, is awesome and beloved by almost everyone I know, including my 85-year old grandmother: go check it out!) There have been a couple of dog-themed episodes of the show, and the one that popped up on my iPod, A Danderous Precedent (ep. 111) was one of them. The case in the episode involved a nice couple who were interested in getting a dog, though the husband in the couple had what sounded like legitimately horrible and debilitating allergies to furry animals, and had also had a bad reaction to the allergy shots he’d tried (which ended up in multiple hospitalizations for anaphylaxis.) But they had solved the problem, the cheerful young couple proclaimed! They were just going to get a Goldendoodle, which was a breed that, according to some stuff they’d read on the internet, was totally hypoallergenic! Also, Husband Of Couple had grown up with a cocker-poodle cross and hadn’t had any allergy issues, so Cheerful Young Couple had decided that, QED, Husband would be OK with any poodle cross. The verdict, incidentally, was semi-reasonable, though not perfect: John Hodgman declared that before they got the dog, they needed to spend a bunch of time with a lot of Goldendoodles to make sure Husband actually could tolerate them, and that they should make sure they had a Plan B in place in case it turned out Husband couldn’t handle the dog they brought home. However, even though everyone was nice and reasonable and thoughtful, this episode made me want to throw my iPod across the room. This is not the first time I’ve heard “I’m allergic, so I have to buy a [fill in the blank/probably a doodle]” argument–I’m sure it’s not the first time you’ve heard it, either–and I always find it maddening. Because here’s the thing:
There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic breed of dog.
If you happen to be interested in dog-science stuff, this should not be news to you: the intersection of dog allergies and breed/size/hair type has been studied for years, and overwhelmingly, the science indicates that breed and allergic potential have basically nothing to do with each other. The academic in me requires that I now link to some of those studies, though in many cases, you’ll need a PubMed or Lexus subscription to read the whole thing. However, if you’re interested, here’s a few, and you can at least read the abstracts in all cases:
- Lindgren, et. al: “Breed-specific dog-dandruff allergens”. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Volume 82, Issue 2, Pages 196–204, August 1988. Conclusion: “There was no significant correlation between [allergy-inducing] skin prick test results and symptoms related to a specific dog breed.”
- Heutelbeck, et. al: “Environmental Exposure to Allergens of Different Dog Breeds and Relevance in Allergological Diagnostics”. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A: Current Issues, Volume 71, Issue 11-12, 2008. Conclusion: “Factors related to individual dogs seem to influence the allergenicity more than breed or gender.”
- Johnson, et. al: “Dog allergen levels in homes with hypoallergenic compared with nonhypoallergenic dogs”. American Journal of Rhinology and Allergy. 2011 Jul-Aug; 25(4): 252–256. Conclusion: “No classification scheme showed that the level of dog allergen in homes with hypoallergenic dogs differed from other homes.”
Many reputable organizations and news outlets have been reporting on these findings and trying to debunk the ‘hypoallergenic dog’ idea: if you don’t believe me and don’t want to read a bunch of studies, here’s The New York Times, here’s our old pals at WebMD, and here’s the Mayo Clinic (though, Mayo Clinic, “just keep your dog outside!” is not actually a good solution to dealing with allergies). Unfortunately, a lot of times, popular or casual journalists–your Dog Daily, your AKC blogs, your Dog Channel, your random piece on Yahoo! that your aunt forwards you–will start an article out by saying, “Some scientists say that there’s no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog” and then immediately pivot to “but here’s a list of breeds that may be a good call for allergy sufferers!”. This is obnoxious and confuses the issue, because, repeat after me: there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic breed of dog. There are no breeds that are ‘better’ for allergy sufferers, period, and to say otherwise is at best, misinformed and at worst, disingenuous. To understand why this is, we have to start by looking at the science behind what dog allergies actually are.
So What Does It Mean To Be Allergic to Dogs?
The biggest misconception about dog allergies is that allergy sufferers are allergic to the dog’s hair; this is why some dogs (like poodles) whose coats are similar in texture to human hair and who primarily shed into their undercoat, are mistakenly labeled ‘hypoallergenic’. Another misconception is that the source of allergens is dandruff, dead skin cells that flake off the dog and float around in the environment. There is a little truth in both of these things, but neither is 100% right: the biggest allergy offender is actually a sebaceous protein called Canis familiaris 1 (usually shortened to Can f 1). This stuff is present in the dog’s body and leaches out through the skin. Our bodies work similarly: if you’ve ever complained about your face being oily or you’ve gotten one of those extra-gross gooey zits, you’ve had first-hand experience with sebaceous proteins coming out of the skin in unpleasant ways. Once the Can f 1protein is on the skin, it can stick to hair, which can then come in contact with human skin when the dog sheds or when you touch him (hence, the association with shedding); it can also stick to dried-up skin cells that fall off the body (hence, the association with dander). Can f 1 also shows up in urine and saliva; given that all dogs are a tiny bit gross, these things also have a way of coming in contact with human skin pretty regularly.
What’s the upshot of all this? Basically, it’s that Can f 1 is pretty much impossible to avoid, unless you have a dog that has no skin and does not produce urine or saliva (in which case, take a closer look: that’s either a photograph of a dog or one of those ‘invisible dog on a leash’ things you get at the fair).
Thus: you’re not safe from allergens if you get a hair-not-fur dog, you’re not safe from allergens if you get a dog who doesn’t shed much, you’re not safe from allergens if you get a supposedly ‘low-dander’ dog, you’re not safe from allergens if you get a hairless dog, and you are DEFINITELY not safe from allergens if you buy a doodle puppy off the internet. At the end of the day, Can f 1 is everywhere, it wants to get on you, and unless you live in a hyperbaric chamber, if you get a dog….it probably will.
Poodles & Doodles & The Whole Kit ‘n Kaboodle
One of the things you might have noticed if you’ve been paying attention at all to the ‘hypoallergenic dog’ debates is that people seem to have a touching faith in the power of poodle genetics to instantly prevent allergic reactions. This was definitely the case with the couple in the Judge John Hodgman episode I was listening to: they were absolutely certain that, as long as there was a touch of poodle in the mix, any mixed-breed dog would have no problem living with a man who went into anaphylactic shock after getting microns of dog sebum in an allergy shot. Common wisdom makes it sound like poodles are whatever the opposite of Kryptonite is: one dash of poodle and you’ll be protected from allergies for the rest of your life! That is hyperbolic, of course, but if you spend much time online looking at claims from doodle breeders, it starts to drift into sounding like fact.
So, let’s look at the science. Are poodles, in fact, magic? Are they even ‘hypoallergenic’ in the sense that people generally mean? There have actually been several studies on this: one of the most compelling to me has this whopper of a title: “Characterization of extract of dog hair and dandruff from six different dog breeds by quantitative immunoelectrophoresis identification of allergens by crossed radioimmunoelectrophoresis.” [Blands, et. al: Allergy, , Issue 3, pages 147–169, June 1977]. This is an older study, but its results were pretty impressive and it spawned a bunch of other studies that basically replicated its findings. Short version: the study got large sample sizes of several different dog breeds, including poodles, and tested each individual dog for levels of Can f 1. What it found is that levels of Can f 1 were WILDLY different among individual dogs, even within the same breed; they also found a broad spectrum of the allergen even among dogs who were related, which suggests that levels of Can f 1 are probably not genetic (thus, if you’re an allergy sufferer and neither of the two parent dogs trigger your allergies, their puppies might still make you sneeze.) Interestingly, this study also found that, among all the dogs tested, poodles had the greatest discrepancy in Can f 1 levels: that meant that a few poodles had some of the lowest levels of the allergen in the study, and a few poodles had among the highest levels. So much for magical non-allergenic poodle coats!
If you’d like to see some more recent findings on the subject, the second study I linked above did a similar breed-specific test using fancier and more up-to-date technology: they got basically the same results. Now, poodles are less sheddy than some other dogs, in the sense that they shed primarily into their undercoat. However, unless you want a VERY matted poodle, you have to brush that coat out pretty regularly, which means that you are going to come into contact with all of that shed hair and those dead skin cells eventually: Danielle will tell you allllllll about that. And again, in terms of allergen production, poodles are all over the place.
So, if poodles do not actually have magic non-allergenic properties, why is it that doodles are hypoallergenic? The short answer? They are not. Yes, Labradoodles were initially bred in Australia with the intent of creating a guide dog who enjoyed the work and was hypoallergenic. Guess what? It didn’t work. Earlier this year, the behaviorist Stanley Coren interviewed Wally Conron, the person who initially crossed Labs and poodles for the guide dog experiment, for Psychology Today. This article is pretty fascinating, so I’m going to quote it extensively:
Conron immediately discovered that since the Labradoodle is a hybrid and not a pure breed, the resulting puppies did not have consistently predictable characteristics… Even in the nature of their coat — the reason why the Poodle was originally part of the mix— there is lots of variability. Labradoodles’ coats can vary from wiry to soft, and they may be curly, wavy, or straight. Straight-coated Labradoodles are said to have “hair” coats, wavy-coated dogs have “fleece” coats, and curly-coated dogs have “wool” coats. Many Labradoodles do shed, although the coat usually sheds less and has less dog odor than that of a Labrador Retriever. In the Labradoodle there is also no certainty that the dog will be hypoallergenic. Conrad explains that the raison d’être for having these crosses in the first place was to prevent allergy symptoms, and that characteristic cannot be guaranteed by simply creating a Poodle cross. He complains, “This is what gets up my nose, if you’ll pardon the expression. When the pups were five months old, we sent clippings and saliva over to Hawaii to be tested with this woman’s husband. Of the three pups, he was not allergic to one of them. In the next litter I had there were 10 pups, but only three had non-allergenic coats. Now, people are breeding these dogs and selling them as non-allergenic, and they’re not even testing them!”
Jen has written very thoughtfully about the difficulties that exist both in finding a reputable doodle breeder and being a reputable doodle breeder, and I won’t rehash that here. What I will add is that even doodle breeders who are trying hard to keep their dogs’ coats consistent and low-allergen are not having much luck (at least in the US) getting consistency past F1. Here’s what that means in layman’s terms: let’s say you have a Lab dad and a poodle mom. Lab dad and poodle mom have a litter of five Labradoodle puppies, and all of them have perfect non-allergenic coats (this doesn’t ever happen, but let’s just pretend for the moment). Second litter: five more puppies, all with perfect coats. Terrific! However, for a breed to really take off AS a breed, you need to go beyond that. You need to have a second Lab/poodle pairing, and they also need to produce puppies with perfect coats, and then you need to breed one Labradoodle puppy from pairing one and one Labradoodle from pairing two, and all of their puppies need to have perfect coats, and then, once you’re dealing with the great-granchildren of the original pairs, then maybe you’ve got the foundations of a breed. Otherwise, when the original Lab dad and poodle mom die, you don’t have a breed; you just have a handful of puppies whose success can’t be replicated. Getting past those initial first litters has been hard for doodle breeders; once you start getting into grandkids and great-grandkids of the initial pairing, the coats start getting all wonky again.
And that’s just the dilemma that faces ethical breeders who are at least trying to have some consistency: I’m sure nobody will be shocked when I say that the internet and the classifieds and the pet stores and the puppy mill brokers are freaking awash in doodles. The people creating those puppies are not working hard to create the perfect coat (and temperament, and health profile, and and and). They are happy to sell people on the myth of the hypoallergenic doodle, pocket the two grand per puppy they usually get, and use it to keep creating more dogs who cannot live up to the standards they’re sold under.
Well, my Aunt Mildred once had a Shih Tzu and I wasn’t allergic to him, so now I know I’m not allergic to Shih Tzus!
This is something that comes up a lot: people have a good, non-sneezy experience with one dog of a particular breed and, based on that experience, they decide that that’s the one breed they’re not allergic to. In a way, it’s sort of sweet: people really, really want a dog, regardless of their allergies, and so they cling on to anecdata and the memory of that one dog that didn’t give them hives in a way that they might not do if they were feeling more rational. However, we know from the studies we looked at earlier that there’s a lot of variance in Can f 1 levels between individual dogs even within the same breed. What this means is that Aunt Mildred’s dog may actually have had pretty low levels of Can f 1, enough that they didn’t trigger your allergies. That said, the Shih Tzu you buy in an effort to replicate that allergy-free experience may be an individual who has a ton of naturally occurring Can f 1 and you can’t even go in the house with her. Because you can’t make useful predictions based on breed, you can’t really use breed as a benchmark to decide whether or not you’ll be safe.
However, what this means is this: unless you have the worst allergies on earth, there are individual dogs out there who are naturally low in Can f 1, and there are probably quite a few dogs out there who won’t trigger your allergies: you just have to figure out who they are. There are two good ways of doing this, and in my opinion, one of the best ways is to make friends with the people at your local shelter. I want to be up front about this: my own bias is that nearly all casual pet owners and a whole lot of performance/sport people can find the dog they want in rescue or at a shelter. However, I think shelters are especially good calls for people with allergies: you can meet adult dogs, you can hang out with them, in some cases you can take them on outings and in many cases, you can foster them for a week or two and see how you do with them in the home. Some of the dogs are going to be Can f 1-heavy and some are going to be Can f 1-light, but the distribution isn’t going to be any different than it would be at a breeder’s, and you’ll have a bigger sample to choose from. If you explain your predicament to whoever’s in charge of adoptions at the shelter, I bet they’ll be willing to work with you: if you bring a dog home for a trial week and it works out, terrific! You’ve found a dog! If you bring a dog home and spend three days sneezing, the dog gets a fun little vacation from the shelter, probably gets spoiled a little, and when you’re ready, you can try another dog. If you are really, really set on a particular breed, you can always ask breeders if they have retired show dogs (usually ‘retired’ dogs are just a few years old) or if they have adult dogs who are looking for pet homes; then, you can ask if you can try them out in your home for a week or two. The one thing I probably wouldn’t recommend is getting a puppy, either from a shelter or from a breeder: in almost all breeds, there’s a significant difference between puppy coats and adult coats, and your allergies may go haywire once your cute little puppy’s adult coat comes in.
I had a Portuguese Water Dog as a kid; have I built up an immunity to Portuguese Water Dogs?
First of all, sing it with me: individual dogs have different levels of Can f 1, so you may have a stronger allergic reaction to different individual dogs. Are you new?
Beyond that, however, is the question of whether children who were raised with dogs have a little more tolerance of Can f 1. Interestingly, this seems to be a matter of some scientific debate. One thing that is clear is that being raised with dogs has some effect on your tolerance level: however, some studies say that being raised with dogs and their weird hair and saliva and allergens and microbes helps bolster your immune system and makes it less likely that you’re going to develop adverse reactions. Other studies suggest that being raised with said allergens and weird microbes can cause a child’s immune system to, more or less, have a total freak out and thus, the child become super sensitive and twitchy around those allergens. This study suggests that children who are born into households containing dogs often develop an immunity to Can f 1, but kids older than three get hypersensitized to it if a dog is introduced into their environment later. If you’re interested in this, you can find an excellent review of these different studies here. Regardless, the fact that you did fine with Polly the Portie as a kid doesn’t necessarily grant you safe passage among Porties from here on out.
What other things can I do to keep from sneezing all over my dog?
If you’ve got a dog already and you’re a little allergic, the good news is that there are lots of things you can do to help minimize the issue.
- Wash your dog! There actually was a study done on this recently: it indicated that if you wash your dog twice a week, you will achieve “a modest reduction in the level of airborne Can f 1“.
- Keep your dog away from upholstery, if at all possible. I am currently being squeezed into a corner on the couch by two of my dogs, and the third is upstairs snoring and shedding all over my bed, so I am not a good role model for this, but fabric tends to collect Can f 1 like gangbusters. If your dog is a couch hog like mine are, you can opt to throw blankets or couch covers over the top and wash those frequently. Also, if you can swing it, hard-surface floors are way better for allergy sufferers than carpeted floors. All of the allergy/athsma orgs recommend keeping your dog out of the bedroom, especially: if you are like me, good luck with that, but it’s probably pretty helpful.
- HEPA filters. Here’s a lit review on those: it turns out that they’re pretty effective in helping cut down the levels of Can f 1 in the air. Many vacuums have them; you can buy them for your vents; you can get freestanding ones (often pretty cheap at thrift stores: I have three and I don’t even have allergies); if you’re feeling really fancy, you can get whole-house filtration systems.
And yes, that’s a lot of extra work, and it’s kind of a pain, and sometimes, late at night, you might find yourself looking at pictures of cute puppies on the internet and reading about how these guys have perfect hypoallergenic coats, and you might feel your fingers reaching for your credit card, because it is really nice to have a dog, even if dogs make you sneezy. But if you find yourself there, please, just close your browser and repeat after me: There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic breed of dog.