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Our pets may also be a cause for sore eyes

Our pets may also be a cause for sore eyes

Cats, dogs, rabbits and birds and other pets, to many, are a joy to behold and play with, but just as the protein in their saliva and urine could irritate the pet parent’s or handler’s eyes, caution eye specialists
illustration of pets and girl with allergy
Representational image | Shutterstock

Gayathri G from California, the United States, shares this story about her 11-year-old daughter, Ela J.

She says, “One day we got a call from Ela’s teacher who said the child’s eyes were red and swollen. We did not know the cause in the initial days. However, when we took her to an allergy specialist, we got to know that our daughter is allergic to pollen, cockroaches, and animal fur.”

The doctor prescribed anti-allergy medication and asked the parents to give it to Ela only in an emergency. Gayathri recalls an incident that happened in 2021 during a vacation in their farmhouse in India.

“My daughter loves cats and dogs. When she went to play with a cat in the neighbourhood, she developed swelling in one of her eyes an hour later. Then her eyes became red and she complained of itching.”

The allergy started spreading all over Ela’s body and the parents could see tiny red spots as well. They gave her the anti-allergy medication and the symptoms subsided in a few hours.

Reactions in the body, too

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America 10 to 20 per cent of the world’s population is allergic to cats and dogs. The feathers from parrots and other birds can also cause eye allergies.

Dr Shilpa Nayak, an allergist and paediatrician from Asthma Allergy Clinic, Mumbai, says, “Urine, saliva, dead skin cells or fur from pets could trigger allergic reactions in one’s body. Though the symptoms begin in the eyes, some people might have systemic allergies (body itching, sneezing, red spots, etc.). All ages groups are equally prone to eye allergies.”

The symptoms of eye allergy include watery discharge, burning sensation, itching, redness, and an irritation or feeling of having foreign particles in the eyes, which commonly affects both the eyes. People wearing contact lenses may have poor tolerance.

The saliva and urine contain a protein -`can f1’ – that could cause eye irritation. However, different breeds of pets contain different proteins. The allergens become airborne when the pets drool over, lick or shed fur hair over household items. An allergy is caused when we touch our eyes after a direct contact with the pets. If the allergen enters the nose, it causes sneezing or a runny nose.

How to avoid allergens

Dr Nayak gives the following advice to prevent eye allergy:

  • Do not keep too many pets
  • Avoid keeping pets indoors
  • Wear goggles or sunglasses while playing with pets
  • Keep pets’ area clean and bathe them regularly
  • Install an air purifier if sensitive to allergens
  • Clean curtains and bedspreads regularly if a pet stays indoors
  • The house should be well ventilated to avoid contamination if pets are kept indoors
  • Wash hands and clothes well after playing with pets
  • In some cases, washing eyes with tap water can worsen the condition

Risks to vision

Dr Syed Moosa, an ophthalmologist from Ecares Eye Hospital, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, says, “One should avoid rubbing the eyes [if they are irritating] after exposure to allergens. Rubbing can rupture the tiny blood vessels in the eyes and lead to corneal ulcers. Continuous exposure to allergens may result in blurred vision.”

Dr Moosa, who is a fellow of the International Council of Ophthalmology, adds that people who are sensitive to dust or fur are to allergies. There are two types of keratoconjunctivitis – which is the inflammation of the cornea and the conjunctiva:

  • Vernal keratoconjunctivitis is a seasonal allergy caused by pollen and is commonly seen in children
  • Atopic keratoconjunctivitis is commonly seen in elder people. It causes mucus discharge in the eye and systemic allergies.

Diagnosis and treatment

Direct examination and slit lamp biomicroscopy are used for diagnosing eye allergies. These tests help to detect any particles in the eyes, bleeding and corneal injury.

Dr Moosa says, “Cold compress helps to relieve the symptoms of eye allergy. One should soak a piece of cloth in clean cold water and place the cloth over the closed eyelids.”

He adds that people wearing contact and have allergy symptoms should wash their hands before removing the lens. The lens should be placed inside its prescribed solution, and should only be used after recovery.

A study published by Allergy, Asthma and Clinical Immunology of Canada in 2020 says an allergic reaction begins 20 to 30 minutes after exposure. In many people, a condition called allergic conjunctivitis – or allergy in the outer lining of the eyeball – remains underdiagnosed and undertreated because the symptoms are not severe.

People often self-medicate with over-the-counter medications or wash their eyes with water or saline. However, it can lead to dry eyes and corneal damage. They require special care on the advice of ophthalmologists.

“Eye drops are usually prescribed. However, if there is no improvement then the individual should consult an allergy specialist who can look for any systemic allergy,” advises Dr Moosa.

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