Saturday, October 29, 2011

Allergies, Part Two

I made an earlier post about how I've been afflicted with sinus congestion and a cough since July, and wanted to update my status about that and to make a point.  To summarize, for those of you who didn't see it, I mentioned that one of my very real fears was that these symptoms were caused by allergies, and that the allergies might be to my pets.  At the time, I was starting to suspect a mold allergy more than anything, but the fear that my babies might be causing my problems was still gnawing at me.

My symptoms have mostly cleared up.  My cough is 99.9% gone.  I can breathe.  Which is good news!

But it has been a very rough few months.  And I suddenly have a better understanding of why people dump their cats off at the shelter, complaining of allergies.  No, no, I haven't done it and was not even tempted to do so.  I've just developed an empathy that I didn't have before.  Let me explain.

My cough was bad.  I would get started and would be unable to stop.  Sometimes it would happen when I was trying to talk, or when I was trying to eat or sleep.  Sometimes I would cough so hard that I would make myself throw up.  And if that is not demoralizing, I don't know what is.  Remember that all of this time we didn't know what was causing it.  At first, we just thought it was a cold gone into my chest.  But when it persisted for weeks, a month, then two months, we knew that it had to be something else.

It seemed like the entire world,  articles written by medical personnel first and foremost, wanted for me to get rid of my cats.  I read tons and tons and tons of medical literature on how to deal with pet allergies, because I was that scared.  The literature was not helpful.  ALL of it suggested that I get rid of the cats.  And I guess from a purely clinical standpoint, the suggestion makes sense.  Sometimes the literature would make a grumpy-sounding second suggestion, the tone of which sounding like it thought that only a truly unreasonable person wouldn't just ditch the cats.  It would go on to say that I could try shutting them out of my bedroom at all times to give myself a "safe zone" free of cat dander, though usually these articles were quick to emphasize that even that might not work.

My cough persisted.   I worried.

I went down into a deep, dark hole and no one could follow me there. (OK, pause for a moment.  I know that this sounds melodramatic, but that really is what it seemed like. I will admit that I was terribly depressed. Bear in mind that I had also just lost my grandmother, and was dealing with the emotions that come with that.)  There was no relief from my worry, since my symptoms never relented, and at night I would bury my face in the fur of one of the cats, or one of the dogs during the day, and cry.  It never occurred to me that the act of burying my face in fur without triggering a massive allergy attack probably was a clue that the pets were NOT my problem.

My husband, bless him, kept me sane.  He would talk me through my anxiety attacks, reassuring me that even if I was allergic, that we would find a way to keep the animals.  I could take allergy medicine.  Maybe get allergy shots.  I did some research, and discovered a product called Allerpet, which is supposed to neutralize a very large percentage of dander before it even goes airborne.  (Although we never tried it.  Have any of you?)  We would try the cat-free bedroom if it came to that.  But for the moment, we were in a holding pattern.  We didn't want to banish the cats from our sleeping quarters if we didn't have to, or start spending the money on dander treatments if we didn't need to, so I just followed the doctor's orders, taking three different kinds of medication to try to cut down on the sinus congestion which would in turn cut down on the cough.  I also used a Neti Pot in the mornings to wash out my sinuses.  We ran air purifiers on each of the floors of the house.

And my symptoms slowly went away.  I started to feel good again.  My mood is starting to lift.  Hooray, let the trumpets sound.

But not everyone is so lucky.  I had a few things in my favor, when it came to the decision to keep my animals.

1.)  I am stubborn.  If you look up "stubborn" in the dictionary, some editions might just have my picture displayed.  I had extended my protection over these animals, and I would have rather chopped off my own foot than get rid of a single one of them.  This stubbornness grew every time I read an article telling me that I should get rid of them.  Or every time a friend or acquaintance suggested that I do the same.

2.)  I had a good support network.  My husband, certain family members, and a very small group of friends supported me through this time.   The pet blogosphere was a comforting place as well, even if I wasn't yet able to publicly talk about my problems.  (I can't count how many nights I sat there, poised to tell all of you about this, but just couldn't bring myself to do it.  It just made the problem seem too real to write about it.)   When I would, exhausted from coughing and wondering if I was going to die before this was resolved, worry out loud about what I was going to do if this was brought on by dander, these lovely people would soothe my fears.  They would, God love them, remind me of what a stubborn cuss that I was, and that I was, behind the cough, a very strong person.  They would gently push me to start working on an "action plan" that would enable us to keep the animals, allergies or no allergies.  They made me feel a little bit less like a social pariah, which I really was feeling like at the time.

What does a person do when they're down in that deep, dark hole when they don't have my mulish stubborn streak?  Or if they don't have a support network?  What if all of their friends and family are telling them to get rid of the animals?  And what if their doctor joins in?  Are they really going to want to wait three months for the doctors to come up with the perfect combination of the perfect drugs to clear up their symptoms?  Or are they going to start trying anything, ANYTHING to get relief?

Don't get me wrong, I am still very cynical at the high numbers of pet surrenders due to allergies.  I think that many times, the allergies are just an excuse.  Allergies are like the no-fault divorce in the pet world.  You avoid judgment, after all, you're just looking after your own health, and also your pet avoids judgment.  No behavioral issues here.  No one's fault.  A confused, sad animal still winds up in a cage, to be adopted by strangers, or even worse, to be adopted by no one at all.

I know that there are people with very real, very intense allergies to pets.  And that these people have a legitimate medical reason for needing to seek relief by removing a pet from their household.  I think that this number of people is very small...  much smaller than shelter statistics would suggest.

I have to wonder, how many of these owner-surrenders are from people that were in a place like I was?  No confirmed cat allergies.  Just a whole lot of unexplainable symptoms, nights of coughing-induced sleeplessness, and questions without answers.  I felt very lonely during this time, even with my support network.  I felt like no one could truly understand how I was feeling (and in the light of day, I can see how untrue such a feeling was, but in that deep, dark place it made perfect sense.  No one understood me.  No one could.)  What would someone in this position do, if they were feeling the same things that I was feeling?

How many of those people would have kept their animals if they'd been shown how to minimize their exposure to dander, or at least been talked through it by someone, anyone.  Or if their doctors were more inclined to try alternatives before recommending pet removal.  Or if there was at least one person there to support them and encourage them to try to keep their pet.

I'm sure that many, or probably even most, shelters do have something in place to counsel allergy-sufferers.  (Shelter workers, correct me if I am wrong.)  Do veterinarians counsel about pet allergies?  Would someone even think to ask them?  What if doctors were more educated on alternative ways to deal with pet allergies?  Are there non-profit groups devoted to this?

I really don't know what the answers are to these questions - I'm just throwing them out there in case someone DOES know and can educate me.  Maybe if there isn't a non-profit group devoted to this, there should be.    And I wanted to post a very candid piece on what it was like to be where I was...  with the hope that it will encourage someone who is in the same place.  That it might prevent even one animal from becoming homeless.  That someone might not feel quite so alone.  It might not even be pet allergies, but even if there is, there are options.  There might be a way to keep the pets and make the allergy symptoms tolerable at the very least.

I hope fervently that this doesn't sound too preachy.  I am writing from the heart, what has been weighing on my mind for months and I acknowledge that it might be a little heavy in places.  The goal is to help - and yes, to vent, but mostly to help.


  1. Congratulations! I deal with alergies (but not to my pets). Finding out what triggers my allergies has been a long journey and we still have some to track down. The coughing drives a person nuts!
    Kudos to you for persevering.
    Nellie's Mom

  2. If You or anyone has allergies please have them email me. I can help them get rid of the allergies with a natural herb.
    I had asthma went to the doctor 2 or 3 times a year. Was told I was going to die 4 different times in a 10 year period. Hubby read about these drops that will cure asthma or any allergies in just a couple of weeks I was in for trying it.
    Let me know.
    xx, Fern

  3. First, so glad you are feeling better! Whew! I understand that dark place all too well, been there many a times. I have survived it many a times due to my animals.

    Interesting a little scary, how all of the info you found on how to deal with pet allergies were to get rid of the pets. Which makes me wonder how many people out there with allergies or falsely think they have allergies are given this news and think there are no other options. And if everyone else is telling them the same thing, they may think it is the only choice. I have come across this with other issues, where there seems to be one and only solution.

    I didn't buy it. I refused to buy into it. Getting rid of the animals, ANY of the animals was never an option. We ended up finding our own solution.

    Really makes you wonder, doesn't it??

    Again so glad to hear you are doing well and hope you continue on the mend. Give all the kids a hug, you are a fantastic mom!!

  4. I'm glad you're feeling better! As a person who has a very weak respiratory system, I can see both sides of the fence. I also have allergy induced asthma, but I'm not allergic to dogs or cats. I wouldn't judge someone who had to find a home for their pets because of those reasons, because I do know how it feels. I'd go as far as I could with treatments before I'd rehome my pets, though!

  5. Thanks for the support, all! I just want to reiterate that I would never judge someone for needing to rehome their pets to remain healthy (like what houndstooth commented about.) I'm really not sure of what I would have done if nothing but separation from animals got me to stop coughing like that. It is no way to live, that is for certain. I'm fortunate that it didn't get to that point, but I do have a fresh empathy for people that are truly in that situation and not just looking for an excuse to get rid of animals.

    And Fern, I will be emailing you, because you have my curiosity piqued!

  6. We are so glad you have such a great support system in place, and that you are stubborn! :) I am allergic to cats, but we have two of them and I am used to their dander now. We also volunteer every weekend at the shelter, and sometimes a new cat will set me off. But like you, I'm stubborn. So we keep on volunteering, and I keep the allergy medicine companies in business.

  7. Dear Melanie:

    This post has struck a deep chord in me, so I wanted to take my time to answer.

    First I am so so thrilled that your symptoms have finally let up on you. What a relief. I am smiling with pleasure at the picture of your return to wellness, of what a difference that makes in life. Sleep, a farewell to the visceral anguish you describe. Freedom from that is balm to imagine by contrast.

    You say, now, your objective in writing is to help. So let me say in what way, for me.

    I hear you describe how your suffering has given rise to empathy for others’ behavior that has upset you in the past. People “justifying” their abandoning the “great pet project” by identifying allergies as a handy whipping-boy. I myself have raged about just that kind of thing – and about many other instances I’ve encountered in life where I had the sense that peoples’ “explanations” did not ring true. To get underneath that kind of situation, to understanding, is to me one of the most difficult but valuable things we could ever do with our talent and heart. It makes equanimity and re-dedication possible, where strife and bitterness and loneliness had reigned before. So your modeling that is wonderful for me.

    So I find the lack of empathy, in the medical advice you report – to simply ditch the animals – especially painful. How maddening it is, to be “given” advice that is not formed and shaped, at its very foundation, by understanding. Bah.

    I love you and 24Paws and houndstooth, who refused to believe there was only one solution. So it takes work, to find other solutions with an “ess.” So? It’s worthwhile work.

    But we’ve already noticed that understanding, empathy, and resourcefulness are not easy enterprises – so in that noticing, I’m invited into empathy with one-note advice-givers who apparently have no clue about, no motivation toward, understanding. Not a life I’d care to live, frankly.

    I’m joyful to hear of the support your husband gave. So so rare. And to think that friends were there for you too. And our dear network (although it wrung my heart to imagine you sitting there unable to write).

    You’re stubborn? Like meowmeowmans? Nah. I’d say you guys are committed to your loving hearts, come what may. My kind of person.

    In case you haven’t seen, and want to see, a story of a person with very real allergies – and also see what a tizzy hearing about that story threw me into – have a look at A Life Bewhiskered blog. It’s the August 1st post entitled “It Seems In A Moment . . .” And my (voluminous) comments (dashed-off in a tizzy) following.

    So your post has helped, then, as you hoped. Here, as you have on numerous other occasions, you have supplied me with calm perspective – and the priceless understanding that is sometimes so very hard to reach.

    A huge thanks from me.

  8. I'm glad that it was helpful... it's a really touchy subject with so many people and so very many different reasons. I always bring it up cautiously, but having just gone through a rough spot myself, thought it was time.

  9. Hi, I just found your blog through the Blog Hop. I really liked this post and am glad you're feeling better. I actually developed an allergy to cats during adulthood when I used to live in Scotland and my first cat was about 7. It took me a while to work out what it was; it was when I went on holiday for a month and was fine until I stayed with a friend with a cat that the penny dropped. Like you, hell would've had to freeze over before I got rid of my cat and she lived to the ripe old age of 19, with me sneezing my way through the rest of her life. Since then I've got another 2 cats but I now live in a tropical climate with wooden floors, so the fur doesn't get trapped the way it does in carpet. The allergy still flares up and I get unbearably itchy eyes, uncontrollable sneezing plus wheezing. If the cats ever scratch me then the scratch site swells up and is very itchy too. BUT.... I still would rather live with that than part with my beloved felines.

    H and Flo

  10. I'm glad you've recovered fully - I am *seriously* relieved for you on this, as I know how much it worried you! I am also glad, though, that the process you went through gave you some insights into what it's like for those who have had to face the awful reality of rehoming beloved friends. I've often been irked by the at-times judgmental and holier-than-thou tone of some animal blogs on this issue (not yours). I'm sure most people, being good people, feel awful for doing what they had to do, and had no choice. I know some activists believe there is always another choice but sometimes, there just plain isn't, and people need to be realistic. (And I know activists see a lot of shitty human beings out there so it can sometimes be hard to draw one's opinions of humans back to center and try to see things a little less cynically.) (Also: Why should a suffering human garner less compassion than a suffering animal? Suffering sucks no matter whose doing the suffering, right? Compassion can go a long way.)

    So - do I believe people who rehome should do everything they can to rehome humanely and kindly? Yes. Do I believe they should give their pet every opportunity they can to be adopted instead of languishing in a shelter cage? Yes. Do I believe rehoming is sometimes necessary in extreme medical circumstances? Absolutely. Having had to do it myself, I have some thoughts on it.

    As you know, I fought medical advice for YEARS, sick all the time, unable to breathe. I tried EVERYTHING medically, holistically, etc. that I could think of, but the problem only snowballed and got worse. Now, I was also very fortunate that I was able to work to find suitable homes for them with friends so that they would not go to a shelter but instead live out their years with people they know and love and get the occasional visit from me. I had a fabulous support network of friends and also with my local rescue group, who worked with me on the issue instead of being harsh with me for it. They were fantastic and I am absolutely grateful for their kindness and support at what was an awful period of grieving at the inability to keep G&Z in my home. I still cry for them, I miss them so much, but it had to happen. I am so relieved that they are safe and sound.

    My wish is that with the proper education out there, others who are faced with that difficult decision can do so humanely, without fear of being considered awful human beings by people who might think something along the lines of "how dare they put their needs as over those of an animal?"

    I know I had to choose breathing (not sniffly. Not sneezing. Not occasionally stuffed up. We're talking hacking wheezing horrible OMG will I ever be able to draw a full breath?) over having cats. This came after major lung issues from a pulmonary embolism, too, so I wasn't yet back to full capacity, and likely never would be if I didn't give my immune system a fighting chance. Anyone who would judge me harshly for that can suck it, as far as I'm concerned. :) (You know me well enough, M, that I won't lose sleep over some stranger judging me for something that they know nothing about.)

    That said, ultimately, my goal is for folks on both sides of the issue to have compassion FOR both sides, because as you've just found out, you can't really know what someone is going through until you've been faced with it, yourself.

    Finally: to those who are faced with rehoming: talk with resources available to you - friends, family, other pet owners, local groups. Explore your options. Don't act in haste. And if you have to rehome, do it thoughtfully and with integrity.
    Just because you have to do it doesn't mean you should do it quickly and carelessly. Know that you are affecting the life of another creature, and do everything you can to affect that life positively. I know that in reality, that doesn't always happen, but I'd like to see more of it happen, you know?

    Thanks for listening....


  11. About 20 years ago I went thru something similar to what you are describing. I was miserable for almost a year. I tested positive for a mild to moderate allergy to cats and absolutely nothing else. I refused to give in and ended up rather spontaneously getting better. No explanation. I did nothing different. It has never come back and look how many cats I am around all the time! I gave up long ago trying to figure out what was causing it because I know there are just too many unexplainable ailments. But as to your question about whether shelters counsel people with allergies, you know I can only answer for one and that answer is "Oh hell no." It does not matter what people say when they bring in a cat, they get no counseling. No resources is the excuse. Coupled with that belief that once people come to the shelter with the cat, their minds are made up and no amount of persuasion will change things.

    I am also convinced that the majority of people who turn in cats using allergies as an excuse are just making up something that sounds good because they are embarrassed to tell the shelter that they simply do not want the cat; that they are selfish and don't like cat hair on their clothes; that they wanted a perpetual kitten; or they got a kitten when they really wanted a baby and now they have the baby so they no longer want the cat, etc etc etc.