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Do Hypoallergenic Dogs Exist? Maybe Not


It's All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. As we all know, the most difficult issue for the incoming First Family may be what kind of dog to get. The president-elect has said they're considering a puppy from a shelter but may want a purebred because 10-year-old Malia Obama is allergic to dogs. We sent NPR's Joanne Silberner to track down the truth about dog allergies.

JOANNE SILBERNER: You can find just about any dog you want at the Washington Humane Society. Adoption manager Diana Foley.

Ms. DIANA FOLEY (Adoption Manager, Washington Humane Society): You can see, we do tend to get a lot of variety of different mixed breeds, pure bred, small dogs, big dogs. We have all different kinds of dogs coming in. We usually have new dogs coming in every single week.

SILBERNER: Foley says people with allergies come in knowing what they want.

Ms. FOLEY: And they do come in looking for a low-shed breed like a poodle mix. They'd come in knowing that they want a dog that's not going to shed a lot that might irritate their allergies.

SILBERNER: But it's not the hair of the dog that causes allergies. Allergists say it's in the dander, the material that flakes off from the skin. Clifford Bassett is an allergist in New York City and yes, Dr. Bassett had basset hounds when he was a boy.

Dr. CLIFFORD BASSETT (Allergist, Immunologist, New York City): There are proteins that are carried from the sebaceous gland on the skin of the animal, and the particles can become airborne. They can become embedded in the hair or the fur. And the animal, as they groom and lick themselves, can wind up in the saliva or the mouth.

And these allergens, or proteins, when held, can trigger a variety of allergic reactions, both that affect the eyes, the nose, the throat, and even the chest or the skin.

SILBERNER: Catch that? It's the dog's skin, not hair, that's the problem. Some people can take care of the symptoms with anti-histamines or nasal sprays. Allergists disagree about the value of shots for dog allergies. Limiting exposure is good, keeping the dog out of the bedroom, using an air filter, no carpeting and cover your dog's ears now. Research has shown that bathing a dog twice a week significantly reduces shedding of those proteins.

Allergist Robert Wood of Johns Hopkins Children Center says there's an enormous variability in how good any single dog might be in provoking an allergic reaction.

Dr. ROBERT WOOD (Allergist, Johns Hopkins Children Center): That difference cannot be predicted by the breed of the dog, the size of the dog, the length of their hair, the amount of shedding, or any other factor that you might predict. It would have something to do with how much allergen the dog produces.

SILBERNER: He points to several studies that have a particular relevance to a family seeking a hypoallergenic dog. The studies all compared several breeds and came up with different answers. In one, poodles did best. But even among the poodles on that study, there was a thousand-fold variation.

Dr. WOOD: So it would have been a chance of great luck if they got that low-allergen-producing poodle, which might have worked out fine, and a disaster if they got the poodle that was a high allergen producer.

SILBERNER: So the bottom line is, there's just no predicting whether a purebred or a mutt is going to cause problems to someone with allergies. The Obamas have reportedly been offered a four-month-old puppy by the Friends of the Hairless Peruvian Dog. But that won't necessarily do the trick. If a dog has skin, and they all do, it's going to produce allergens.

Wood says, with a severe dog allergy, especially if it's complicated by asthma, bringing a pooch into the household isn't a good idea. But with milder allergies, Wood suggests getting a dog on a trial basis, finding a shelter or a breeder who will take a dog back after a couple of weeks if things don't work out. Joanne Silberner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanne Silberner is a health policy correspondent for National Public Radio. She covers medicine, health reform, and changes in the health care marketplace.