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Monday, November 10, 2008

A Mutt Like Me

Not since Richard Nixon’s famous Checkers speech has a dog featured so prominently in presidential politics. During President-elect Obama’s acceptance speech on Tuesday night, he told his daughters, Sasha and Malia, they “have earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House.” When asked about the puppy during his first post-election press conference on Friday, Obama explained in more depth:

This is a major issue. I think it’s generated more interest on our web site than just about anything. We have two criteria that have to be reconciled. One is that Malia is allergic, so it has to be hypoallergenic. There are a number of breeds that are hypoallergenic. On the other hand, our preference would be to get a shelter dog. But obviously, a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me. Whether we’re going to be able to balance those two things is a pressing issue in the Obama household.

Adopting a dog is a meaningful experience in anyone’s life, and the Obamas are right to consider the unique needs of their family and approach the decision with care and deliberation. Animal lovers are grateful that the First Family-elect wants to rescue a shelter dog, and I’ve written before on this blog that adoption can send a powerful message of hope and change for all the dogs suffering in cages at abusive puppy mills or waiting in shelters for a second chance and a loving home.

So the question that remains is whether it’s possible for any family—presidential or otherwise—to balance their desire for a shelter dog with a child’s allergies. My answer: “Yes we can!”

KeelyFirst, adopting a purebred is easy. One of every four dogs in U.S. animal shelters is a purebred. If a family wants a particular type of dog, such as a breed that might produce fewer reactions in people who suffer from allergies, the local animal shelter should be the first stop. My colleague Kelly Peterson adopted her dog Keely (pictured)—a soft-coated wheaten terrier, one of the breeds said to be less irritating to those with dog allergies—from the Portland shelter run by the Oregon Humane Society.

There are also purebred rescue groups that specialize in particular breeds of dogs, keeping abandoned, rejected, or stray purebreds until they can be placed in loving, permanent homes. And online resources like Pets911.com and Petfinder.com allow people to search for specific breeds in need of adoption.

Second, contrary to popular belief, there are no “hypoallergenic” or “nonallergenic” breeds of dogs or cats, and even hairless breeds may be highly allergenic. People respond differently to dogs and cats, and one animal of a particular breed may be more irritating to an individual allergy sufferer than another animal of that same breed. Children sometimes outgrow allergies, although adults rarely become accustomed to pets to whom they are allergic.

Cats tend to be more allergenic than dogs for allergic people, although some people are more sensitive to dogs than cats. Dogs with soft, constantly-growing hair—the poodle or the bichon frise, for example—may be less irritating to some individuals, although this may be because they are bathed and groomed more frequently. A mutt who is a mix of those breeds would have the same benefits for people with allergies.

The Humane Society of the United States has tips for reducing the symptoms of allergies when pets are in the household, such as cleaning your home properly, bathing your pet regularly, creating an “allergy free” zone where the pet is not allowed, and considering allergy shots. By doing some research and taking simple precautions, we can keep people and pets together—from the White House to your house.

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