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.