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Pet peeves

Before you send the hamster home for the holidays, remember that one in 10 people have a pet allergy. In some cases, it is little more than the odd sneeze, but for others it can be life-threatening. To protect pupils and their families, insist on a few basic rules:

* always wash your hands after touching a pet (particularly furry ones);

* never touch face or eyes before washing your hands (swelling can occur with scary speed);

* keep pets out of the bedroom;

* keep them off kitchen surfaces;

* limit their access to furniture and vacuum the floor after a pet has been in the room.

The aim is to reduce contact with dead skin from the pet's furry little body. It is this, attached to the shed hair, which causes allergies in the sensitive. In extreme cases of itching or eczema, antihistamine medication may be needed.

If a pupil suffers from asthma when near a pet, it is best to part with the animal. Never allow a pet to go home with an asthma sufferer. It can take months of careful cleaning, with high-efficiency particulate-arresting (HEPA) filters on the vacuum cleaner, to rid a house of skin scales from one animal visit. A carpet may look clean, but to the lungs of the asthmatic, the invisible flecks of dander are highly irritating.

Washing the pet can dramatically reduce dander but washing small mammals like hamsters is difficult and may harm the animal if done by a child. Supervision is advised.

Fleas and parasites, saliva, urine and droppings can also cause allergies. Cages need cleaning every day. Regular de-infesting with veterinary products will reduce the risk of bites and possible infection, but any house with pets, carpets and central heating is probably harbouring millions of fleas.

Anyone can develop an allergy, although some are more prone than others. It may take a couple of years to develop, but may then be so extreme that the sufferer has to live somewhere else for a few months until the air has cleared.


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