Pets May Prevent Allergies in Kids
Early Exposure Found to Reduce Later Risk in Children
Oct. 14, 2003 -- Despite the long-held belief that cats and dogs in the home could lead to childhood allergies, there's mounting evidence that the opposite may be true: Having pets may actually reduce risk while avoiding these critters doesn't.
In the latest study, allergist Thomas Platts-Mills, MD, PhD, of the University of Virginia, and Swedish researchers find that the longer children had pets when they are young -- ideally during their first two years -- the lower their frequency of having pet allergies is years later.
It follows a study last year that found babies raised in a home with two or more dogs or cats were up to 77% less likely to develop various types of allergies at age 6 than kids raised without pets. Besides pet allergies, those children were less likely to develop reactions to dust mites, ragweed, and grass.
Both findings go against the long-held belief that exposure to pets in childhood could increase risk of developing allergies.
The new study, published in this month's issue of The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, is based nearly 2,500 children in Sweden. They were tested for allergies between ages 7 and 8 and again four years later.
Children who continually owned pets were less likely to have pet dander allergies than new pet owners or those who had only been exposed earlier in life. In fact, of those who proved to be allergic to cats, 80% never had a cat at home.
Platts-Mills tells WebMD that in his study, the protective effect of pet ownership was much stronger with cats than with dogs.
"Based on these findings, we can certainly say that if you are considering getting rid of the animal because you want to have children and are worried about their allergies, there is no reason to do that," Platts-Mills says.
This is significant, because allergies often run in families and children of parents who are allergic -- whether to pet dander or other allergens -- are more likely to develop their own allergies.
Still, he's not ready to suggest that you get a pet if you don't already have one. Platts-Mills notes that his study was done in Sweden, where dust mite allergies are less common than in the U.S. Since pets produce more dust, having dogs and cats can aggravate dust mite allergies in people vulnerable to them.