We found out our son was allergic to peanuts at age 1, when he was licked on the face by a dog that had recently eaten a peanut butter flavoured dog biscuit. Luckily, the EMTs got there fast and after epinephrine was administered and a trip to the ER, he was okay.
We went to the allergist, who performed a peanut skin test and explained to us how cross-contact works. She also informed us that several common allergens are found in some dog foods and flavoured toys. For a person with food allergies, touching these allergens can lead to hives, but contact with the mouth (as in a dog lick on the face) may cause a serious reaction. For small children, the risk is greater because they touch their mouths so frequently.
Recently, I spoke with Dr. Vy Hong-Diep Kim, MD FRCPC, a Toronto-based clinical immunologist and allergist, about dogs, food allergies and reactions.
Q: What is a dog allergy?
A: Dog allergens are present in the skin, hair, saliva and sebaceous glands. Dog allergies can cause symptoms such as itchy watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, hives and an asthma flare in people who have asthma. People with dog allergies can develop symptoms when they are around the dog, even without touching the dog, as some of the allergens can be airborne.
Q: I hear people say their dogs are “hypo-allergenic”. Is that possible?
A: “Hypo-allergenic” dogs still have one or more dog allergens present in them, thus they should not be considered “safe” for people with dog allergies. Dog exposure should be minimized in people who are allergic to dogs to reduce the chance of developing asthma or the chance of asthma flares in those who already have asthma.
Q: What is the connection between food allergy reactions and dogs?
A: Generally, for peanut allergic people, if the dog has eaten peanut butter and licked you, you could get a skin reaction where the dog has licked you. Reactions are limited to the skin, unless you have a dog allergy or you ingest the peanut.
Q: What precautions should be taken if a child is allergic to ingredients in some dog foods, such as peanut?
A: I suggest the same precautions that you would take for other foods if the food contains peanut, then the child with the peanut allergy should avoid being around the food, in case of accidental ingestion. If the child is playing with the dog, the child should be supervised (for safety reasons, regardless of presence of allergies).
If the dog has just ingested peanut [or any allergen], then the child should stay away from the dog.
Q: If you’re allergic to dogs and also have food allergies, how do you know what you are reacting to?
A: Food allergies can cause a range of symptoms, some of which overlap with the symptoms of dog allergies. Generally, food allergy symptoms appear quickly after ingesting the food. Sometimes it can be confusing if exposure to both happens at the same time. If there’s any question of a food allergy reaction, then it is best to treat the food reaction.
Interview by Anne B., a Food Allergy Canada member