Sniffles! Sneezes! Itchy eyes! Nobody wants those to overshadow the fun of bringing home a furry (or scaly, or feathered) friend. But the good news for allergy sufferers is this: You’re likely not allergic to all kinds of pets, says Mitchell Grayson, M.D., an allergist in Milwaukee.
First, talk to your doc and find out if a skin test is in order. Then check out our list of allergy-friendly pets that can work for families with sensitivities—or those of you who just aren’t quite ready for that puppy or kitten.
Friendliness: Both fish can recognize their owners
Longevity: 4-10 years
No surprise here: Fish are the ultimate allergy-friendly pet because, well, there is water and a tank between them and you. While kids can’t pet and cuddle their friend, they can become quite mesmerized watching sea creatures swim back and forth in the tank. It’s important, though, to keep said tank squeaky clean. “Mold and mildew are likely to build up at the surface of the tank and can release their spores into the air, which can trigger a reaction in some people,” says Dr. Grayson. (Bettas should not share a tank with goldfish because they need different water conditions.)
Friendliness: Enjoys human interaction; easily trained with positive reinforcement
Longevity: 7-10 years
A big cause of sneezy pet-related allergies is the dander (aka dead skin cells) that cats, dogs, and other mammals shed. Reptiles, however, don’t generate it. “And they don’t have hair that can further trigger allergies,” says Dr. Grayson. A kid-friendly favorite to try: The Bearded Dragon. “They are interactive with people and can be trained to enjoy touching as well,” says Susan A. Brown, D.V.M., owner of Rosehaven Exotic Animal Veterinary Service. It’s important to note, however, that reptiles can carry salmonella and are not recommended for children under age 5 (or pregnant women, older people, or those with weak immune systems). For everyone else, wash your hands before and after handling your pet.
Friendliness: Love to socialize; may be best in pairs or small groups; like to play with each other and sing
Longevity: 10-15 years
There’s a lot to love about these small birds: They’re smart, enjoy flying around the house and playing, and are allergy-friendly to boot! Dr. Grayson says even people who are very sensitive to cats and dogs rarely have an issue with birds—especially these species, which don’t produce a sneeze-inducing powder on their wings that some larger species do. “Plus, their small size will minimize any other possible triggers,” says Dr. Brown.
Friendliness: Highly intelligent, very social, and easily trained with positive reinforcement
Longevity: 1-3 years
Gerbils, hamsters, rats, and mice are great picks for furry pets. It’s true that they’re mammals, so they carry similar allergic potential as, say, kitties and puppies. “But they’re so much smaller that they produce considerably fewer allergens in their environment,” notes Dr. Brown. Plus, not having free range of the house helps. (The bigger the rodent—like the heartier guinea pig and chinchilla—the more allergy issues they create.) Rats are actually the best pick if your kid wants something cuddly—they love to be held! Gerbils, hamsters, and mice are more fragile to handle but can still be very interactive.
“Realistically, there are no good choices for allergy-free dogs or cats. They all can cause symptoms,” says Dr. Grayson. The reason: People react to proteins in dog and cat saliva, sweat, dander, and urine—and there is no one protein to which most people are allergic. “That’s why certain so-called hypoallergenic cats and dogs may cause fewer problems for some people, but others may suffer just the same,” he says.