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 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 many households have at least one pet and that people tend to form strong attachments to their pets, this was often an upsetting and difficult task—but one that seemed necessary. 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.
Studies published 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. In addition, a 2007 review of available studies found that early exposure to pets was associated witha a decreased risk of eczema. But these studies were all observational and a cause and effect relationship cannot be made from them.
Unfortunately, scientists remain uncertain which children might benefit (or be harmed) by early exposure to animals. To date, studies on this important topic do not adequately control 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 is associated with less risk of allergy is both interesting and suggestive, but pending larger and better scientific studies, it should still be regarded as preliminary.
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 petting, hugging, and kissing pets if you are allergic.
- Keep pets out of the bedroom.
- Sweep, dust, and vacuum frequently.
- Use a micro-filter or double bag in your vacuum to help reduce pet allergens in the carpet.
- 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.
- If you cannot keep pets off furniture, consider covering upholstered furniture where a pet sleeps or rests with plastic covers.
- Wash your pets with tepid water on a weekly basis.
- Have someone who is not allergic brush the pet regularly and do brushing outside the home.
- Use an indoor air, electrostatic, or HEPA air cleaner to filter pet dander from the air. Air cleaners should be used at least four hours per day.
- Talk to your doctor about the possibility of allergy shots for your child.
- Consider keeping your cat or dog outdoors with proper shelter.
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