Sometimes animals make me sick. Take that literally, as in sneezing, wheezing, hives, itchy eyes -- the whole enchilada.
In the spring, when the pollens are at their worst, I am incapable of removing pet hair and dust from my own home and must rely on others to do it for me. In winter, when mold counts are high, the animals go to our groomer for frequent baths because I can't handle the chore.
One lovely spring day a couple of years ago, I got a noseful of dust cleaning out the garage and a lungful of pollen working in the yard before heading to a party in a house full of cats. It was too much: I spent the wee hours of the next morning sucking oxygen and bronchodilators through a mask in a hospital emergency room.
Things are very rarely that bad for me, of course. Although there are allergists who refuse to treat people who won't dump their pets, I've been fortunate over the years to find those who are willing to work with me, to give me the treatment and advice I need without lectures.
Many animal-lovers have the same problems I do, and for them, my advice starts with finding an allergist who doesn't greet you with, "First, find new homes for your pets." In some cases, for some people, that will unfortunately be the ultimate resolution of the problem. But it needn't be the starting point for attacking allergies. It's your life, after all, and if you want to spend it with critters that make you sick, it's your right to do so. So find that allergist, and follow these other helpful tips from the experts:
* Don't neglect your other allergies -- sometimes controlling them will give you enough "breathing room" to make life with your pets bearable. Remember always that allergies and asthma are serious health problems, not to be taken lightly. Don't go it alone: Find a doctor who will help you with all your allergies, even if you elect to keep your pets. They are out there.
* Establish your bedroom as an "allergy-free zone." More than one-third of our lives is spent sleeping, and it's important to make that time less stressful for the body.
Close off your bedroom and reduce dust-collecting surfaces by removing carpets and rugs, wall-hangings, stuffed animals and collectibles from the room. Invest in an air purifier, keep air ducts and ceiling fans clean and vacuum often. Banish feather pillows and down comforters. Choose hypo-allergenic bedding and use zippered, dust-proof covers on the mattress and pillows. Combat dust mites by washing bedding frequently, in hot water.
Make the bedroom completely off-limits to pets, at all times. Although there's not a pet-lover alive who doesn't enjoy a purring cat on the bed, keeping the bedroom allergen-free is probably a necessary compromise for allergy sufferers.
* Try to limit exposure to other allergens. Avoid cleaning solutions, cigarette smoke and strong perfumes, and consider using a mask when doing yard work.
* Keep your pets clean and well-groomed. The best situation is for a non-allergic member of the family to take over these pet-care chores. Frequent bathing and brushing of pets is a must -- for cats as well as dogs. If you live alone, or if everyone in your house is allergic, consider sending your pet out for grooming. Brushing should be done outside -- wear a mask and wash your hands afterward to minimize the irritation.
Although some breeds of pets may be less irritating to people with allergies -- poodles, for example, are often mentioned -- there is no such thing as an allergy-proof animal. The claim is so prevalent regarding animals such as the Cornish Rex cat that breed registries go out of their way to debunk it.
Barring the discovery of a magic pill, compromise, cleanliness and the care of an allergist are the keys to coping with allergies and pets, and will continue to be so. It's not a good situation, but it's the only one available to people who cherish both their pets and their health. People like me.
Ms. Spadafori is a licensed pet trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o At Home, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.