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Archive for Tuesday, April 28, 1998

SOME PET LOVERS LEARN TO COPE WITH THEIR REACTIONS

April 28, 1998

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Fluffy and Rex might cause severe allergic reactions to people who are susceptible to asthma attacks or who are affected by other allergens.

A trip home for Kansas University senior Erin McDermott isn't particularly enjoyable, but it's not because she doesn't get along with her parents or siblings.

Within minutes after arriving at Leroy and Diane McDermott's house in Overland Park, the 22-year-old experimental psychology student has trouble breathing, her lips swell, her face gets puffy, and her eyes itch and water. She might as well be allergic to her parents.

In a sense, she is, but it's the thousands of cat hairs and minuscule particles of cat dander that no amount of cleaning will dispose of that sends her into an allergic frenzy. The reaction decreases over time, but it takes about two days before the effects disappear.

``I can go home maybe once a month, but that's bad enough. I've just had to quit spending nights there,'' said McDermott, who was first diagnosed with allergies at age 14 -- after years of living with the family's cat, Max.

In the four years following her diagnosis and before she moved to Lawrence to go to college, she made sure Max never entered her room. She also left her bedroom windows open at all times, even in the dead of winter. A special filter in the house's ventilation system doesn't seem to help, either.

Max has since died, but he's been replaced by James, Jasper and Ezekiel, and a black lab named Jennifer Alice.

``She had cats so long, it just didn't seem right for her to get rid of them,'' said McDermott, who gave Max to her mother as a gift. ``I didn't want her to get rid of them because of me.''

In a family drama that allergists often see, the McDermotts are torn between their love for animals and Erin's reaction to them.

``It's very emotionally upsetting to deal with this, understandably,'' said Dr. Warren Frick, who treats McDermott's allergies and asthma.

``But it's unfortunately something that many families have to deal with,'' Frick said.

McDermott grew up riding horses, being outside and loving cats. Seasonal allergies now make spring a time for increased medication, and owning a cat is out of the question. The solution to her pet problem: Beelzebub, the bearded dragon.

The cold-blooded reptile, however, lacks a personality a cat or dog can provide, and his mood seems constant.

``This guy's pretty friendly,'' McDermott said, as Beelzebub, about 1 1/2 feet long, dug his claws into her jeans.

``A lizard is a poor substitute. You can't pick him up and squeeze him,'' she said. ``You can't bring him into bed in the morning. I grew up with cats before I was allergic, and you get used to having an intelligent animal that has a personality.''

Avoidance and medication

Frick said there are ways to combat the allergens that pets give off. Avoidance, of course, is the recommended avenue of dealing with pet allergies. A HEPA or other high-grade air filter should be used, and the animal should never be allowed in the bedroom of the person who suffers from allergies.

``Some people swear their cats never get on their bed, ever,'' Frick said, ``even though they might be allowed in the bedroom. I don't know how that's possible.''

On the average, cats present more of a problem because of the dander -- tiny skin particles -- they shed. Frick said he treats veterinary students who will be dealing with allergies throughout their career.

Jean Greek, a veterinarian who specializes in dermatology at Veterinary Specialists of Kansas City in Kansas City, Kan., has mild allergies. Greek said she's more susceptible to breeds that tend to have allergies -- Shar-Peis are the worst -- but she never knows which animal will trigger a reaction.

One of the technicians who works with Greek breaks out in rashes on some occasions, and she's heard stories about veterinarians who have to take disability pay while recovering.

``Unfortunately, there's really not a hypo-allergenic breed, which is interesting, because there are some breeders who advertise they have certain breeds that are less of a problem,'' she said. ``I can handle 10 cats and then have the 11th one bother me.''

Greek suggests bathing the animal once a week, including cats. If the bathing ritual begins early in life, cats are more agreeable to being washed. The washing removes dried saliva and keeps dander ``to a dull roar,'' said Greek, who owns eight cats and three large dogs.

Greek and Frick said there are pet shampoos and other products designed to help take the edge of allergies, but they typically don't solve the problem. Most pet owners resort to medication.

McDermott has Ventolin and Breathair inhalers for her asthma, Claritin for allergies, nasal sprays and eye drops, and has an allergy shot every two weeks.

``I'm a walking pharmacy when allergy season hits,'' she said.

McDermott plans to marry Steve Mos, another KU student, in June. Their pet plans might be limited to reptiles, but McDermott has hope.

``I think the best-case scenario is that we can have an outdoor dog,'' she said.

-- Chris Koger's phone number is 832-7126. His e-mail address is ckoger@ljworld.com.

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