Pets can make wonderful companions. But for around 60 percent of people who are diagnosed with asthma in the United States, the allergens from common furry creatures may trigger a potentially serious reaction.

So, is pet ownership off-limits for people who are diagnosed with asthma?

Not necessarily, but there are some risks you should be aware of. Here’s what you need to know about owning a pet if you’ve been diagnosed with asthma, along with some tips to make it a safer experience.

Allergic asthma is the most common type of asthma, where exposure to allergens like dust mites, mold, and pollen can trigger asthma symptoms like:

  • trouble breathing
  • coughing
  • wheezing

Pets are another common trigger. The allergens associated with animals like cats and dogs can cause asthma symptoms. These allergens include:

  • urine
  • feces
  • saliva
  • hair
  • dander

These allergens can be spread throughout the home when you own a pet. They can also linger on household surfaces, such as furniture, clothes, walls, and carpets, for months after a pet is gone.

Pet allergies can be a tricky thing to figure out. Some people may only experience minor reactions from exposure to animal allergens, while others may have more severe symptoms.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America estimates that there are twice as many cat allergies as there are dog allergies. You may also develop allergies to an animal later in life, even if you had that same type of pet as a child.

To determine which pets, if any, you’re allergic to, ask your doctor to conduct a skin prick test or blood test. That way, you’ll know if there are specific animals you should avoid adopting as pets.

Owning a pet can come with some risks for people who are diagnosed with allergic asthma.

If you’re allergic to them, exposure to pet allergens can bring on asthma symptoms, such as:

  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • shortness of breath
  • chest tightness
  • rapid breathing
  • rapid heart rate

Some people who are highly sensitive to certain allergens may also experience an intense rash on their:

  • upper chest
  • face
  • neck

It’s possible to experience allergic asthma symptoms within a few minutes of being exposed to pet allergens. It’s also possible to develop a reaction several hours or days later.

Cat allergies, in particular, can trigger chronic asthma.

Keep track of any symptoms you develop after exposure to animals, and work with your physician to determine if pet ownership is right for you.

Also be sure to work with your doctor to come up with a written asthma action plan so you know what to do in the event of an allergic asthma attack. Keep any prescribed medications and treatments on hand.

Some pets are safer for people who’ve been diagnosed with allergic asthma than others. Consider getting an allergy test before bringing home a pet to confirm which animals trigger your symptoms.

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a truly allergen-free breed of dog or cat. Even pet birds can trigger respiratory allergies.

Certain nontraditional pets that don’t shed dander might be a safe option, such as:

  • frogs
  • snakes
  • turtles
  • lizards
  • hermit crabs
  • fish (though some people may have a reaction to allergens in fish food or tank algae)

Before you adopt a pet, you might want to set up a trial run to see how your body reacts. You could spend a few hours in the home of a friend or relative who owns a similar pet, visit an animal shelter, or borrow a pet for the day.

The best way to avoid allergic asthma symptoms from animals is to keep them out of your home. But if you decide to adopt a pet, here are some ways to make the experience more allergic asthma-friendly:

  • Keep your animals outside and preferably out of your bedroom. If the weather is pleasant and you have an animal-friendly yard, consider keeping your pets outside for most of the day. That can help reduce the amount of dander in your home. You could also limit your pet to certain rooms in your home.
  • Focus on one at a time. More animals means higher levels of allergens in your home. Avoid owning more than one pet at a time.
  • Train your pets to stay off the furniture. Couches, beds, and other furniture can be a magnet for pet allergens.
  • Clean carpets frequently. Steam cleaning and vacuuming can help remove animal allergens from carpets. Wear a dust mask while cleaning to avoid breathing in any allergens that are stirred up in the process.
  • Change your clothes. After playing with your pet, be sure to put on a clean outfit and wash your hands.
  • Bathe your pets regularly. Giving your dog or cat frequent baths can help reduce the presence of dander in your home.
  • Use an air filter. Some people report that running an air filter for at least a few hours each day can help control pet allergies, but there’s not much evidence to support this.
  • Ask for help. If someone in your household isn’t allergic to animals, consider asking them to take care of pet duties, like cleaning the cat’s litter box or brushing the dog outside.
  • Visit an allergist or immunologist. They may be able to prescribe medications that help control your symptoms. They may even desensitize you with allergy shots.

By making a few lifestyle changes, pet ownership can be an option for people who’ve been diagnosed with more mild allergic asthma.

However, if you experience trouble breathing or other severe symptoms, you might want to consider avoiding cats and dogs in favor of frogs or turtles.

No matter what, always make sure you have an asthma action plan in place.