You Want a Dog. Someone in Your Home Has Eczema. What Do You Do?


By Ilka Pinheiro

Published On: Aug 1, 2022

Last Updated On: Sep 12, 2022

Choosing the right dog is tricky for families with eczema. But with the right guidance and using evidence from research, there’s a good chance you can find a pup that works with your family’s potential allergies and skin care needs.

What is the risk of getting a dog if your family lives with eczema?

All dogs – regardless of the breed – have the potential to trigger your allergies and eczema.

According to Dr. Ari Zelig, a board-certified allergist who practices at the McCulley Allergy Center in Germantown, TN, allergies are generally caused by exposure to dander (shedding flakes of dead skin). “Common symptoms of a canine allergy,” Dr. Zelig said, “include itchy eyes, nasal congestion, sneezing and runny nose. It’s important to note that environmental allergens such as dog dander can worsen eczema and can penetrate an impaired skin barrier, leading to further inflammation.”

What about those so-called hypoallergenic breeds? Nick Miller is a Boston-based dog trainer and founder of Walden Dog Training; he often fields questions from clients with individualized healthcare needs.

“For families concerned about allergies, dogs with longer-haired coats are less prone to shedding, and therefore tend to be the best option,” Miller said. “These dogs usually have less dander that cause issues for people with skin conditions.”

Before making the decision to bring a dog into your home, Dr. Zelig emphasized the importance of understanding the potential severity of canine allergies. “Highly allergic patients,” he said, “may break out in hives if they come in contact with certain dogs.”

When families with allergies ask about specific breeds, Miller said he usually recommends Portuguese water dogs, soft-coated wheaten terriers and all three sizes of poodles and schnauzers.

How can you determine if someone is allergic to dogs?

A skin test or a blood test can reveal the exact nature of a potential canine allergy. Dr. Anna Fishbein, associate professor of allergy and immunology at Northwestern University, recommended patch testing for any family with eczema before bringing home a dog. She explained that the severity of an allergic reaction can be measured in a laboratory setting.

“We test by aerosolizing the allergen into the lung or nose at different quantities to see how much you need to react and how severe the reaction is,” Dr. Fishbein said. “Most patients often know where they fall in that range [of allergic reactions], but certain dogs (not breed specific) can be more allergenic than others. And meeting with an allergist is the best way to get to the bottom of this.”

Before finalizing any decision, Dr. Zelig advised prospective dog owners to “spend time around a variety of dogs to make sure they don’t provoke any allergy issues.”

“There is no breed that is consistently eczema-friendly,” said Dr. Fishbein. “The concept of a hypoallergenic dog is not based on research. There are different allergens produced by different dogs and these ‘components’ can be tested for with your allergist.”

You’ve finished allergy testing and now you’re ready to get a dog – for real

If you’ve completed allergy testing, talked to your healthcare team and you’ve picked out a dog, the next step is training the dog to minimize your risk of allergic reaction in your home. For many new dog owners with eczema, this means separating parts of your home into allergy-free zones.

“All dogs must learn basic rules, limits and boundaries when introduced to a new home,” Miller said. “I would recommend that an adult keep a new dog near them using a leash to interrupt behaviors they don’t want to see (such as jumping up on furniture). It is also helpful to have high-value treats to reward them when they get off the areas humans might not want them to go.”

Miller explained that establishing “dog-free” rooms in the house could help minimize your exposure to the dog’s dander. “Good dog training isn’t rocket science,” he said. “Set your dog up for success by introducing predictable routines and sensible household rules. Don’t give them too much independence or responsibility before they can handle it. The dog you praise is the dog you’ll see more of over time.”

Your new dog follows all your rules, but you’re still having allergic reactions

Part of the challenge in bringing home a dog is that your allergies may vary in severity over time.

Some people eventually experience fewer allergy symptoms and “get used to being around their dog,” said Dr. Fishbein. “Other patients get more allergic and have severe uncontrollable eczema or asthma, which then reverses when the dog is taken out of the home.”

If your allergies get worse over time, Dr. Zelig suggested that “immunotherapy, also known as allergy shots, can help desensitize you and make you less allergic to your dog.” Scheduling a follow up appointment with your allergist, after you bring a dog home, Dr. Zelig said, will give you an opportunity to review your skin care regimen and any medications that might help decrease or prevent your symptoms.

Wash your dog at least weekly, Miller said, and be sure that the person washing the dog is not the person who’s allergic to the dog to avoid direct contact with any allergens.

“Dogs live in a human-dominated world,” Miller said. “And they need your guidance to succeed in it.”To facilitate your dog search, consider a visit to your local chapter of the Humane Society, which allows families to visit and play with canines who are candidates for potential adoption.

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