A Dog in the Obama White House

Sloane Miller Health Guide
  • I've been allergic to animals since I was four years old. My reactions are watery eyes, stuffy nose, hives and asthma. Once I had an asthma attack, it could last for weeks and inevitably leave me vulnerable to infections, colds and viruses. Going to a friend's house where they had a dog would lead to week of sickness for a few hours of fun. It just wasn't worth it, ever, and I learned that lesson very young. But around me, very few people seemed to understand that reality, even my immediate family.


    "Can't we just put the dog in the other room?"


    "Well, you wont be allergic to my dog because she's hypo allergenic."

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    "My dog doesn't have fur, he has hair."


    I've heard these refrains for the last 30 years (and p.s., not one of them is true nor helpful to allergic asthmatics who react to animal dander). So, I was very surprised to hear President-elect Barack Obama, after his acceptance speech, declare that his family was getting "hypoallergenic" puppy because his daughter Malia is allergic.


    That raised several questions in my mind, mainly what kind of allergies does Malia have? How sensitive is she to animal dander? Is she so allergic that they will need to replace carpets and furniture from past White House pets? I know if it were me, the White House would have to be redone top to bottom!

    To the public, the biggest question seems to be: what kind of "hypoallergenic" dog would the Obamas get? Medical professionals, reporters and bloggers, including Kathi MacNaughton on this site, have raised doubts about hypoallergenic pets. Mr. Obama answered that puppy question swiftly but vaguely in the first few days after the election: "There are a number of breeds that are hypoallergenic, but on the other hand our preference is to get a shelter dog, but obviously, a lot of the shelter dogs are mutts like me," Obama said. "So, whether we are going to be able to balance those two things I think is a pressing issue on the Obama household."

    I praise the family for seeking a shelter dog, however, "hypoallergenic" is the issue that I want to address. "Hypoallergenic" is a word that was created by the cosmetics industry. It is not regulated by FDA; it is not a scientifically valid term nor a measurable claim. From the FDA website:
    "There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term "hypoallergenic." The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean. Manufacturers of cosmetics labeled as hypoallergenic are not required to submit substantiation of their hypoallergenicity claims to FDA. The term "hypoallergenic" may have considerable market value in promoting cosmetic products to consumers on a retail basis, but dermatologists say it has very little meaning."


    Hypoallergenic can mean whatever you want it to mean. In my case, it means very little because I am allergic to animal dander. In fact, so is everyone else who is allergic to a beloved pet. As Dr. Wanda Phipatanakul, chairwoman of the Indoor Allergen Committee for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) said in an interview with US News and World Report: "...contrary to popular perception that allergies are caused by animal hair, allergies are actually caused by a protein found in the animal's dander (a combination of skin and hair), and also its saliva and urine. "Even if you get a hairless dog, it's still going to produce the allergen."


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    That would rule out even the "Peruvian Hairless" (and apparently sometimes toothless) dog the government of Peru has offered to send the White House and even the poodle or Bichon Frise varieties proposed by the American Kennel Club. Said Dr. Jonathan Field, emeritus director of the pediatric allergy and asthma clinic at New York University/Bellevue Medical Center in New York City in the same US News article: "All dogs, to my knowledge, have skin. Even if you shaved off all their hair, you'd still have skin flakes and saliva."


    So what does this mean for the first family and the first dog? Will they end up getting a dog that she can't play with very much? Will she outgrow her allergies during her years in the White House? We will have to wait and see.



    See also:

    The Myth of the Allergy-Free Pet

Published On: November 25, 2008