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Exposing Kids to Dogs, Cats Early Can Pay Off

Research shows early exposure to pet dander and fur can ward off allergies later.

Even Doods a Don't?

"If there is a strong family history of allergy or asthma," Brian A. Smart, MD, an allergist with the DuPage Medical Group in Glen Ellyn, Ill., tells WebMD. "I say the person probably should not get a pet.

"But," Smart hastens to say, "I don't usually ask people who already have pets to part with them. They are more likely to part with me than with their pet."

There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog, though, Smart emphasizes. "The more the dog costs, the more the breeder is likely to say it won't cause allergies."

Still, Smart notes:

  • Dogs with shorter hair carry less dander, which may make the dog "less likely to trigger allergies."
  • Some breeds do shed less, which results in less hair (on surfaces) in the home.
  • Smaller dogs also have less dander and fur (because there is simply less dog).

Other "medical" hybrids include the schnoodle -- a poodle bred with a schnauzer -- and the bichon/yorkie.

Could Dogs Even Prevent Allergies?

Allergic dog lovers got a huge boost from a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002, showing that early exposure to dogs and cats actually reduced asthma sensitization in children, rather than increasing it. In other words, being around dogs and cats early in life might prevent later problems in a large percentage of cases.

"We looked at kids from birth to age 7 to see what was the biggest cause of allergies," says Dennis R. Ownby, MD, head of the section on allergy and immunology of the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, tells WebMD. "We thought high levels of dust mites were probably the No. 1 cause."

A number of allergy causing factors, such as parental smoking and pets, also were checked. The researchers came up empty. "Two million dollars and nothing to show for it," exclaims Ownby. "Dust mites had no effect that we could find."

Then they thought about some findings in southern Germany that seemed to show that kids raised on farms had a lower incidence of allergies. They went back and looked at their pet questions on the survey.

"It really was surprising," Ownby says. "Being exposed to one dog lowered sensitivity to all allergens. Two dogs had a bigger effect than one dog." The effect of cats in the home was similar, so the researchers combined dogs and cats. They compared kids with no pets, one dog or cat, and two pets (dogs or cats or one of each) -- and found almost a 70% reduction in sensitivity from those with two pets.

One effect, the researchers say, may come from being licked by the pet, which transfers bacteria that changes the child's immune system. It alters it by introducing the child's immune system, which triggers allergies, to substances early.

Ownby is starting an NIH-funded study to follow up with the same kids, who are now 18. They will study more races and ethnic groups this time and factor in the weight of the pet. "Does a 20 pound dog have more of an effect than two 10-pound cats?" he wonders.

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