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What Is Dander?

By Virginia Franco
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Broadly speaking, dander is any microscopic shedding from the bodies of birds and animals, including humans. It is usually made primarily of skin cells, but can also include bits of hair, fur, or feathers, too. Dandruff is related, but is limited to the scalp and is usually a result of oils built up around the hairline. Dander, by contrast, is from anywhere on the body, and normally happens as a natural course of growth and skin regeneration. People and animals don’t usually notice this sloughing; the skin doesn’t itch, and in most cases the particles released are too small to be seen. It happens naturally, though regular washing, scrubbing, and brushing can keep release of these particles into the larger environment more controlled. This is often of particular concern to people with allergies to animals or pets. Most of the time, it isn’t actually the animal itself a person is allergic to, but rather is the skin and dust particles released from that animal that cause trouble. Regular pet grooming and bathing, combined with intensive vacuuming and air filtration, can often help mitigate discomfort and reactions.

Biological Role

Skin sloughing is something that most animals do naturally as a way of helping the outer layer, known as the epidermis in humans, regenerate. The skin is made of millions of cells, some young and some old. Older cells that are dying off naturally fall away to make room for new cells to take their place. Sometimes the natural sloughing process can be sped up with exfoliation and regular brushing. At least in people, scrubbing the skin to reveal newer cells is often thought of as a way to make the skin appear fresher and more youthful; it’s often also a good way to help maximize the effects of lotions and other topical moisturizers. In animals, it can be a means of reducing airborne allergens.

Allergen Potential

It is estimated that almost ten percent of the world's population is allergic to dander in at least one of its various presentations. When it comes to these allergies, pets &mdash and cats in particular — are by far the greatest culprit, usually because of how often these animals are inside and how easily their sloughed skin and fur can attach to nearly all surfaces of a home. Cat skin cells tend to be particularly sticky and are easily carried on clothing. People with these allergies often suffer more in the presence of cats than dogs or other pets. In particular, male cats who are not neutered produce the greatest volume of sloughing. Birds, rabbits, mice, hamsters, and guinea pigs can cause allergies as well.

As with many allergies, reactions can develop relatively suddenly, even for those who have spent years around a particular type of animal. Symptoms are often mild and can include sinus congestion, itchy or watery eyes, sneezing, and coughing. More serious attention must be paid to symptoms such as respiratory distress or asthma attacks.

Mitigation Ideas

Pet lovers need not dismay if a sudden allergy arises. There are several measures that can be taken to minimize allergic symptoms. Neutering a male cat is a good first step, as it will reduce the amount of allergen produced. Bathing pets frequently, as often as twice a week, and daily wiping with a wet cloth to remove any skin or hair that may have accumulated can also be effective.

Keeping a pet out of the areas where a person sleeps and closing air vents leading to the bedroom can help provide dander-free sleep and minimize exposure. The use of High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) technology can also help. Using HEPA air filters in individual rooms and daily vacuuming with a HEPA-filtered vacuum can help eliminate the allergens that travel across a home and permeate its surfaces.

Importance of Regular Cleaning and Hygiene

In addition to bathing, regular grooming is often really important. Controlling excessive fur or hair loss can reduce the need for excessive skin sloughing. Many veterinarians and pet care providers offer exfoliating baths for pets whose owners are sensitive to skin sloughing, and certain brushes can help control the issue, too.

Regularly deep cleaning the animal’s environment is essential, as well. Pet dander can remain for months or years without thorough cleaning efforts. These should include washing all soft materials like bedding, rugs, and curtains, and replacing or cleaning all air conditioning and heat vents to remove any buildup. It is important to dust all furniture, vacuum the house thoroughly, and steam clean any carpet and upholstered furniture.

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Discussion Comments

By Mor — On Mar 17, 2013

@clintflint - That makes sense, since people are hardly breathing in whole cat hairs every time they get an allergic reaction.

It's kind of the same thing with a dust allergy. People aren't usually allergic to the dust itself. You're allergic to the spore of the dust mites that feed on the dust and dander.

I'm getting more and more allergic to dust as I get older, which is very annoying. Although, I'm kind of glad to have discovered this allergy, since when I was a teenager and not so good at vacuuming my room regularly, I used to feel sick before school every day. My mother used to joke that I was allergic to school, but I guess I was allergic to my own bad cleaning skills!

By clintflint — On Mar 16, 2013

Generally people aren't allergic to dog or cat dander itself, but to their saliva. That's why cats are worse, because they lick themselves all the time and the molecules that cause the allergy stick to the hair.

That's why you can get animals that are "hypo-allergenic" without being hairless. They have less of the actual allergen in their spit.

It doesn't make all that much difference to know this, to be honest, since you still basically treat the allergy by reducing the shedding as much as possible.

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