Pet-Related Hidden Dangers
For the longest time, my allergies to different pets and animals seemed inconsistent. I seemed to be okay with some dogs, but not others, some cats, not others, some horses, some chickens, some hamsters… the conflicting pet list went on and on. Being an animal lover, I wanted to make sense of it all. Well, once I learned that touching and being in contact with small particles of my allergen (peanut) could incite a reaction, the same way eating my allergen could, I’d figured out why I was having these “animal” reactions which were actually peanut-related reactions due to cross-contact.
I Grew Up With Lots Of Pets
Interestingly, I grew up with lots of pets, and dogs, but only once I was around the age of 7 and not as an infant. Scientists have found that growing up with pets early on is a way to reduce the likelihood of allergies, such as eczema, hayfever, and asthma later in life. A study at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, found that the more exposure the baby has, such as even just meeting other people’s various animals, is helpful, and that the more pets you have as an infant the more of a decreased chance for the child to later develop allergies. This is the same idea as early exposure to top food allergens in babies, which is recommended, and I discuss it more in my article about caring for children with food allergies.
So while I grew up with lots of pets in my household once I was a kid elementary school-aged, and all my childhood friends seemed to have a plethora of pets as well, this exposure may have been too late to help my immune system from developing allergies, eczema, and asthma. I had bunnies, a tiger salamander, two frogs, many goldfish, and two panda bear hamsters Cookie & Cream- who we were told were both Male, until Cream shockingly and semi-traumatically (for me, and for her) gave birth to 2 more hamsters named Oreo and Pinky. I had a gerbil who lived a very long life, my mom currently has 4 cats, we had a cat when I was in High School, and we always had more than one dog during my preadolescence! And to be honest, I’m feeling like I’m forgetting some!
Top Allergens In Pet Products & Pet Food
As a kid, my family checked ingredients to be certain to not buy peanut butter dog-containing treats, but that was basically the extent of our safety measures. In hindsight, the bunny, gerbil, and hamster food was very risky for me in terms of exposure. We never used anything with peanuts in it, but I’m sure it was all cross-contact contaminated at the facility level. Thank goodness we never got a bird, because birdseed almost always contains peanut ingredients, and goes dusty and airborne easily, much like gerbil and hamster food. Side note, if you are new to food allergies or someone in your family is and you have or want a pet bird, this company makes peanut-free birdseed, which I use in my outdoor bird feeder.
Now as an adult with a life-threatening peanut allergy, I’m knowledgeable about the lack of human non-food labeling laws in the U.S. and that products not meant to be ingested by humans (non-food products) do not have the same labeling standards as something that does. This poses a risk and problem for people with pets and animals, because often pet food and treats are made in facilities with top allergens, and also made with top allergens, and not clearly labeled or labeled transparently.
Getting Creative With Pet Food & Treats
Being creative and thinking outside of the box is a big part of having a life-threatening food allergy. From swapping out ingredients on the fly for recipes to figuring out ways to work and volunteer that work for your abilities and health, so don’t forget that you have the option to make your own version of birdseed, hamster food, cat and dog treats, etc. out of safe ingredients. Doing things this way can be more expensive, especially upfront, but also possibly less expensive overall for the amount of a product you’re getting, so that’s something to consider and it really just varies based on brands you can have and the types of ingredients needed.
After getting allergy testing as an adult, it turns out I actually am slightly allergic to dog dander, which makes sense to me based on past reactions I’ve had to some dogs. This was confirmed by blood allergy testing I had done in 2016. For a while, I thought that I had a more severe dog allergy suddenly develop since I would break out in hives and/or get a swollen lip and face at friends’ and families’ homes from their dog’s saliva. But as it turns out, the culprit of my reactions was actually due to peanut cross-contact coming into play from treats, food, and toys, and I wasn’t realizing it. I know multiple cat owners who feed their cats peanut butter, so this isn’t dog-specific.
Peanut remnants are not only in the animal’s saliva, but also transfer onto rugs and carpets from them chewing on toys and bringing them around the house. Trace amounts end up on the furniture, bedding, floors, their fur, etc. Generally, I assume small bits of peanuts are sprinkled throughout every animal owner’s home, so I enter bravely and proceed with caution, with my epi-pens, wet wipes, and Benadryl at hand. If you haven’t read my post explaining what is cross-contact vs. cross-contamination, you may want to!
Preventative Cross-Contact Measures
The brand name wipes ‘Wet Ones’ are convenient to keep on hand, and a long time ago I read that they actually contain an ingredient that breaks down nut-protein. I can’t find the study to confirm it and asked the company Wet Ones about it, and they said they are aware of the study and results but they didn’t perform the study themselves, but regardless, that brand tends to be my favorite go-to for most situations and combating peanut dust in daily life. The brand is also free from the chemical allergies I have.
If you suffer from environmental or pet dander allergens, I suggest getting an air purifier with a HEPA filter. We have a Honeywell HEPA filter and I can noticeably tell when we’re using it vs when we aren’t!
I truly love animals, but going to friends’ and families’ homes who have animals does bring a whole new side of my airborne and life-threatening food allergy out that I have to stay aware of and alert for, so honestly, I try to limit it to an extent. From friend’s dogs who play with peanut butter-filled Kong toys or take daily medicine with peanut butter, to birds in cages with dusty allergen-containing bird feed that gets onto surfaces and microscopically into the air- the potentials for deadly cross-contact are truly endless. Cross-contact with pets is a very common problem I run into with my peanut allergy. For people new to food allergies, or those not well-versed in food allergies, it’s something that is often not considered, since there’s no act of eating involved.
Keeping My Own Pet(s) Peanut-Free
How To Keep Your Own Animals Allergen-Free
After determining the reason I was reacting to other people’s pets was due to microscopic cross-contact of peanut ingredients, not a life-threatening dog allergy, I immediately wanted my own safe pup in my life! With my new understanding of how I could have a pet and keep myself safe, I felt excited to have a dog, which was something I always wanted but had ruled out due to the uncertainty of it all in relation to my peanut allergy.
My husband and I got a beagle mix named Colby as a 5 ½-year-old rescue from a local shelter. The first thing we did was wash him SUPER well after we first got him because I had no idea what he had been fed, where he had been, etc. and I avoided licks from him for a few days.
Peanut-Free Facility Dog Food Brands
Colby eats the brand Earthborn Holistic dog food, which luckily he seems to like because he is a picky Beagle! Earthborn is also a company I feel good supporting for environmental reasons, it is the only brand I found that is a peanut-free facility as far as dog food manufacturing goes, and I emailed them to find this out. I like that they use ingredients that are recognizable. It’s worth mentioning that their dog treats are not safe if you avoid cross-contact with peanuts, because some of their treats contain peanut ingredients, but these are made in a different facility from their dry dog food. I do check periodically email them on if this has changed, since we’ve had Colby for many years now and changes could happen at any point without the brand giving any notice to consumers.
When it came to finding peanut-free facility dog food, luckily a few of the many pet brands I contacted were responsive via email and let me know if peanut ingredients are in their facilities. As a general rule, if I don’t get an emailed reply back from a company, or if I get a vague reply, I cross it off my potential brand list and move on to the next. It can be tough finding out about pet food ingredients, because they aren’t required to release the full ingredient list since it isn’t for human consumption, so the labeling laws are different. Plus, when I first got Colby, I also needed to know about new non-food items I’d never contacted before to see if they contained peanut-derived ingredients such as pet wipes, washes, and pet bones as many facilities use undeclared “natural” ingredients. To keep it brief, anything you buy for your dog that is edible, I call the facility on to ask if it contains my own allergens, not because I want to eat it, but due to cross-contact and the likelihood of exposure.
The last time I checked, the brand Fromm makes peanut-free facility treats, but they can be expensive. We purchased those for a while, but now we make our own out of Bob’s Red Mill brown rice flour and other Colby-friendly (our dog is actually chicken and grain-free due to his own allergies) & Zoë-safe ingredients.
My mother-in-law got us an organic dog biscuit recipe book and it is what we’ve always used to make our homemade dog treats. They make great gifts as well to other pet parents, and can be customized with cookie cutters to adorable shapes and varying sizes for specific toys and needs! I typically just cut them into small squares so they fit in his Kong toy. For our dog Colby’s birthday, I can make him these homemade treats, or I’ve even made him special “bday treats” in the past based on ingredients we already had in our fridge, like freezing Greek yogurt & smashed blueberries into a small cake-like shape, or little yogurt drops. I like to use whatever we have already that I know is safe for me and is available on hand, like my own sun nut butter to give him his medication. This brings me to my next topic: pet medication.
Giving Your Pet Medicine
I will admit— I understand the common practice surrounding giving your pet peanut butter to get them to swallow their medicine. As I mentioned, we happen to have adopted a very allergic dog, and he takes a prescription allergy medicine daily for environmental and food allergens. The Greenies pill pockets for dogs aren’t safe for me to use, as they’re made in a facility with peanut ingredients, so I’ve had to experiment on my own with things like cheese and different seed butters. Colby is able to spit the pill out of most things, but alternative-nut butters that are labeled and from a peanut-free facility are great! So there’s no judgement in terms of having nut-particles all around your home if you don’t have a nut allergy, I understand how it happens, because our house probably has almond or soy particles everywhere due to us having to do the same thing. Even with cleaning surfaces really well and often, the tiny food particles can linger, so it’s something to stay aware of at other people’s homes.
Dog Parks & Doggy Play Dates
Play dates with other dogs can be risky due to my peanut allergy, but are fun for both dogs and humans, so I don’t completely cut them out! I don’t attend dog parks because it’s too much of a risk for my own allergy, with too many unknown variables. In the past, it has become overwhelming since it is a lot for me to have to wash him, wash myself, and wipe my car down super well each time we go out to dog-places like that. I already wipe him down really well and/or wash him after we go to the vet or even play with another dog impromptu on a walk, so the dog park seems like a bigger risk than reward.
However, I do have doggy play dates with friends who understand and respect my food allergy needs! With doggy play dates, my main objective is to try to limit my own touching to my face, especially my mouth area or eyes, which is honestly just a good habit, anyway. I try to limit receiving any dog kisses, but if I somehow get a lot of licks from the other dog, I normally try to calmly go wash the area quickly as a precaution. I’ll wear longer-sleeves and pants if I can, to limit this from happening. Lastly, I will give Colby a bath afterward, or at least wipe him down, and then change my own clothes and take a shower, to be sure the residue is gone.
Depending on if you host, or go elsewhere, here are my pointers:
If You Host The Dog Playdate
I’m realizing these same food allergy tips work for kids and pets, just an FYI, often a lot of the same rules and thought-processes apply! My examples are all dog related, but may get you thinking about other ways pets you have such as cats, bunnies, etc. could cause cross-contact with a food allergen.
If you host the dog playdate, you’ll want to be mindful of where you’re letting the dogs go in your home, and closing off any doors to try to keep the area you’ll be cleaning after it is over to a minimum. Once it is over, anything else that may be contaminated by potential peanut ingredients or allergens from the other dog should get wiped or washed like dog toys and the water bowl. Other things that I wipe down are door handles, my clothing, my phone, and any surfaces that the dog came into contact with, which means sometimes I’ll mop the floor.
After having reactions and a lot of cleaning to do, I’ve fine-tuned my conversations with friends before hosting, clarifying for their dog to not have peanut butter a few days before, and that this includes not using peanut butter for medicine, the Kong, peanut butter treats, and so on.
I always make a point to talk about cross-contact, even with friends who I see often and are mindful of my allergy, because everyone has moments where they may forget or not consider one aspect that contains peanuts, and I’m opening up my peanut-free home environment, so I want to take it really seriously and cautious. I will put away anything I can’t wipe or wash, like specific toys or pillows, so that I’m not in a pickle trying to wash something that isn’t washable later on. Just remember: it’s always your call and do what you are comfortable with.
If You Are Going To A Doggy Playdate
If you’re going somewhere else for the playdate, cross-contact will look different because you’re entering someone else’s home and a new environment. Anytime you’re entering a public space or someone else’s space that may eat and use your allergen, it’s good to be mindful and bring wet wipes or wipe your hands, arms, or any exposed areas of your skin often. I stay aware of what my dog Colby comes into contact with, and then act accordingly once we get home if he needs a bath or not. I’ll put a towel in my car where he’s sitting and do small actions like this to try to eliminate cross-contact getting into my car after the playdate.
Because we do walk Colby in our neighborhood, which is contaminated with my allergen and other common allergens, we try to wipe his paws on our doormat before he comes in. It’s basically the same as what we do with our own shoes, making sure to wipe them on the entry mat really well, and taking them off before coming inside if we know we stepped on something like birdseed or peanut-shells.
Being Cautious Of Pet Snuggles
If I’m giving Colby snuggles and want to put my face in his fur and give him kisses, I am mindful of where I’m placing my face, and if he’s had a bath recently, been on a walk or to the vet recently, and so on. I often will wipe him down with a wet washcloth every few days just to try to remove any particles from him. Unfortunately, seeing peanuts on the ground outside is a common situation in my own neighborhood, in other neighborhoods and parks, and even in my own garden due to squirrels and neighbors birdseed.
Peanuts & Peanut Shells On My Street
In the past I’ve actually written letters to multiple neighbors of mine to ask them if they’d mind to stop feeding peanuts to our neighborhood squirrels, and explaining my life-threatening allergy. After finding peanuts in my front lawn and on my front porch due to our big oak trees above, I initially thought it was the mailman (well, in actuality, I first wondered if I had an enemy). So I called the post office and asked if my mailman may be potentially feeding the squirrels, as I’ve seen him feed neighborhood cats before. It turns out, he was not, and it was a neighbor a few houses down that was, in addition to another neighbor one block over from us doing the same.
A few days after I first noticed the peanuts in our yard and garden I was out walking Colby on our street, and Colby actually ate a peanut on the sidewalk. I was in a frenzy, and then I realized I had also stepped on a peanut, which got wedged in a crevice on the bottom of my sneaker and I went into full panic mode. I quickly followed the peanut trail with my eyes, mostly to escape as quickly as possible, and saw my neighbor’s front yard was absolutely covered with peanuts. I wrote the letters immediately and luckily, both people were very understanding to my letters and now use sunflower seeds. Every Fall season or so, I’ll write a ‘thank you’ note again, to also serve as a friendly reminder.
Side note: I didn’t want to tell my neighbors this, since they are doing a nice gesture for me by switching to sunflower seeds and alternatives on my behalf, but feeding squirrels peanuts is actually bad for their digestion, as they are in the legume family, and not a ‘nut’. Spread the word!
It’s important for me to keep my environment safe as much as I can control, but I also try to not get too hung up on the potential cross-contact side of pets and my neighborhood as much as I can. I stay aware and alert, carry my medications, and keep me phone on me in case I need to call someone for help (like I did when I stepped on the peanut and Colby ate one- I called my husband who cleaned everything for me.)
If you have a food allergy, or a food-allergic child, and are wanting to get a pet, I say give it a go! I’ve been told that most animal rescue organizations are willing to do “trials” with adoptions to make sure it’s a good fit with allergens, they want the animal to be re-homed to be happy just as much as they want you to be happy with them and make sure it is a good fit, so I recommend asking about doing that “trial” for a week before committing. We’ve had situations where I’ve been too allergic to a specific breed of cat or dog in the past, and I’ve done foster home trials, so it’s helpful to have this as an option. Everything is about getting options and having choices that can help benefit you.
Invisibly Allergic Food Allergy Blog
Cross-contact is an huge part of having a life-threatening food allergy, and a topic I will cover much more on Invisibly Allergic blog. As it’s such a huge issue and hard to control, and definitely proved to be the hardest part of having a food allergy for me. Because it’s everywhere, at every moment, and often too small to be seen or detected, it’s just a really tricky part to manage of living with a food allergy.
Actions like touching doorknobs, touching elevator buttons, going into an animal shelter, using anything public like a library book, or even a book a family member lends you, sitting on a park bench, doing simple shopping at the grocery store, arranging store-bought cut flowers– all of these normal actions are just as risky as having a doggy play date. I say this to help not have you obsessing over if a pet is a bad idea or good idea, it’s just like everything else in my opinion, and so it requires planning and certain boundaries but has been extremely rewarding for me! My goal is to not avoid everything and be fearful of everything, I don’t want to live in a bubble- so I try to take as much control over situations as I can, and then try to enjoy the moment with my medication on hand. I hope you and your family can do the same!
My goal is to not avoid everything and be fearful of everything, I don’t want to live in a bubble- so I try to take as much control over situations as I can, and then try to enjoy the moment with my medication on hand.
I’m so, so glad I got a dog and didn’t let my peanut allergy scare me out of it, like it almost did! It does take time to contact food brands initially, but that is why I made this post for everyone out there to help simplify that process.
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