However, for some, the idea of a cat or dog in their home means just one thing - allergies. If you are a sufferer but desperate to enjoy the company of a pet, there are things you can do to minimise the symptoms.
What are pet allergies?
An allergic reaction to pets is commonly caused by their saliva, skin and urine. Contrary to belief, the hair itself is not the problem - in fact, it is dead skin cells, as well as saliva and urine, that cause the issue. When a cat or dog grooms itself, their saliva coats the skin and fur. These dead skin cells are known as dander, and are shed along with loose hair or fur. Often, as a result of grooming, the dander is also coated in saliva. People with allergies are oversensitive to the dander and experience a range of symptoms as a result.
Pet allergies generally manifest in coughing or wheezing, red and itchy eyes, a runny or stuffy nose, and sneezing. Some suffer with a headache or sinus pain as a result of the congestion, and a sore throat can also be a symptom. Those with asthma often find that their symptoms are intensified. Skin reactions are not unheard of either, with some allergy sufferers experiencing itchy skin or hives.
How to control the problem
If you're pet-allergy prone but keen to share your home with a dog, cat or bird, there are ways and means of minimising the problem and controlling the symptoms.
Around the home
Regular cleaning is essential if you are to keep animal dander to a minimum, but it is definitely worth investing in a vacuum cleaner with an HEPA filter, as those that don't simply send all those pesky allergens back into the air. Replacing carpets and curtains with wood or laminate flooring and blinds will also help to reduce the amount of allergens hiding in fibres.
Providing we're not suffering the latest arctic weather blast, try and open the windows for an hour each day, and make sure your pet's bed is well away from air vents. Keeping some areas pet-free is also a good idea, and if possible, try not to let your dog or cat onto furniture, where saliva, hair and dander gets trapped in the fabric.
There are pet shampoos specifically designed to reduce allergens, and these may help, but be aware that bathing your dog or cat too often can dry out the skin and upset the balance of natural oils, which may actually cause more problems. If you have family members that are not allergic, ask them to regularly brush your pet instead, and thoroughly clean the brush afterwards.
Best of breed?
Sadly, the hypoallergenic pet is a myth. Even hairless breeds of cat or dog shed dander. But don't despair - some coat types are better than others. For instance, curly-haired dog breeds such as the poodle tend to shed less hair, which in turn means less dander, and a short-haired cat will likely cause far fewer problems than a long-haired Persian.
Generally, the best way to minimise the dander is to opt for a small breed. The bigger the dog, the more dander, saliva and urine he or she will produce.
If your symptoms are such that you just can't face a dog or cat in your home, why not think about an entirely different type of animal? Reptiles and fish are particularly allergy-friendly, but do clean tanks regularly to prevent mold, another problem allergen. If you prefer your animal friends to be furry, consider a small, caged animal like a rat, hamster, rabbit or guinea pig. While they still produce dander, there is much less of it, and because they are caged, they won't be spreading it all over the house. Rabbits and guinea pigs can also live happily in a hutch outside.
Pet allergy symptoms can be treated with a variety of over-the-counter medications. Antihistamines, nasal sprays and decongestants all offer relief, but if in doubt, check with your doctor as to the best treatment for your particular problem.
Are you a pet owner with an allergy? What are your top tips for minimising the problem? Leave your comments below...