Pets and Your Child’s Allergies
Not too long ago, expectant parents were often advised to give away their family pets before a baby arrived, especially if there was a family history of severe allergies or asthma. The prevailing theory was that being around pets at a young age increased a child’s risk of developing allergies and asthma. Given that almost 70% of US households have at least one pet (translating into more than 100 million pets) and that people tend to form strong attachments to their pets, this was often an upsetting and difficult task—but one that seemed necessary. Recent research, however, makes it clear that the controversy surrounding this approach is far from over.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at the relationship of exposure to dogs and cats in the first year of life, and the allergy development six or seven years of age. The study’s findings were not what you might expect.
In the study, 474 children were followed from birth to age six or seven. The babies involved were healthy, full-term infants. When the children were six or seven, they were tested by both a blood test and a skin prick test for the presence of allergic antibodies. Researchers found that children who were exposed to two or more dogs or cats in the first year of life were less likely to have allergies.
The study’s authors suggest that bacteria carried by the pet may be responsible for suppressing the immune system’s response. Endotoxins produced by the bacteria shift the child’s developing immune system away from the pattern of response that favors the development of an allergy.
Studies published in 2002 in the Lancet and the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine also had similar results, finding that early cat exposure was related to a reduction in allergy development. Unfortunately, some of nearly a dozen similar studies have not fully confirmed these findings, and scientists remain uncertain which children might be benefited (or harmed) by early exposure to animals. To date, none of the studies on this important topic adequately controls for differences in the degree of animal exposure or for genetic factors that we know strongly influence the development of allergies (such as whether one or both parents are allergic). The evidence that pet ownership reduces allergy is both interesting and suggestive, but pending larger and better scientific studies, it should still be regarded as preliminary. As two British lung experts lamented, “Results . . . are such that almost any view . . . could be supported by evidence from the literature.”
Until we have more solid evidence, parents should make decisions about pet ownership without expecting that human newborns will derive health benefits from their furry friends.
If Your Child Already Has an Allergy
Although several studies have found that being around pets might help prevent young children from developing allergies, it cannot help a child who already has an allergy to cats, dogs, or other pets. If your child has already developed an allergy to your pet, it is a good idea to keep your child away from the pet.
If you do have a pet in your home and an allergic child, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology offers the following tips to help minimize contact with pets and their allergens:
- Avoid hugging and kissing pets if you are allergic.
- Keep pets out of the bedroom.
- Do not have direct contact with litter boxes if you are allergic.
- Do not place litter boxes in areas with air filtration intake vents.
- Wash hands after touching a pet.
- Consider covering upholstered furniture where a pet sleeps or rests with plastic covers
- Wash your pets on a weekly basis. There are pet shampoo products available that can neutralize or inactivate allergens present on the skin of cats or dogs.
- Have someone who is not allergic brush the pet regularly and do brushing outside the home.
- Ask your veterinarian about a balanced diet for your pet. A healthy diet may help minimize your pet’s hair loss, leading to reduced pet dander indoors.
- Use an indoor air, electrostatic, or HEPA air cleaner to filter pet dander from the air.
- Use a micro-filter or double bag in your vacuum to help reduce pet allergens in the carpet.
- Talk to your doctor about the possibility of allergy shots for your child.
While pets might offer some protection against allergies, they also pose risks to children. Bites and scratches from pets may prove serious or even fatal. Pets carry many pathogenic organisms which may be dangerous for children (or adults). Among these are beta streptococci (strep), methacillin- resistant staphylococci, and Clostridium dificile. Each of these organisms can be passed from pets to children and can cause serious illness. Dogs and cats must be examined for parasites on a regular basis and treated to avoid risks to children. Dog tapeworms are especially serious. Other dog-derived worms may be associated with asthma in children.
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI)
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease
About Kids Health
Allergy Asthma Information Association
Allergy statistics. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease website. Available at: http://www.niaid.nih.gov/factsheets/allergystat.htm. Accessed December 7, 2003.
Cooper PJ. Toxocara canis infection: an important and neglected environmental risk factor for asthma? Clin Exp Allergy. 2008 Jan 30
Ferguson BJ. New horizons in the management of allergy. Otolaryngologic Clinics of North America. 2003;36(5):771.
Ownby DR. Exposure to dogs and cats in the first year of life and risk of allergic sensitization at 6 to 7 years of age. JAMA. 2002;288(8):963-972.
Pets and allergies: minimizing the reaction. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology website. Available at: http://www.aaaai.org/patients/seniorsandasthma/pets_allergies.stm. Accessed 12/17/2005.
Steele MT, Ma OJ, Nakase J, Moran GJ, Mower WR, Ong S, Krishnadasan A, Talan DA; EMERGEncy ID NET Study Group. Epidemiology of animal exposures presenting to emergency departments. Acad Emerg Med. 2007 May;14(5):398-403.
Last reviewed March 2008 by Lawrence Frisch, MD, MPH
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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