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Pets May Protect Children From Allergies

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Speaking at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, Cole warned that this protection did not seem to extend to asthma: Approximately 10% of the children in their study developed that condition.

At the same conference, allergist Richard F. Lockey, MD, reported on a 41-year-old man with asthma who experienced two severe allergic reactions, one nearly fatal, while washing his pet ferret. He also developed hives on his abdomen when the animal touched his skin. Lockey and his colleagues at the University of South Florida and the VA Hospital in Tampa, Fla., found that extracts of ferret hair and urine elicited positive test responses from people known to have multiple allergies, including allergies to cats and dogs.

Lockey suggested that the current proliferation of pets could be contributing to the rapid growth in asthma and allergies seen in the past few years. He cited evidence that some people are even allergic to gerbils and guinea pigs, as well as dogs, cats -- and, apparently, ferrets. However, he concedes that most people resist recommendations to get rid of their pets and may not even think of their pets as animals.

"When you ask someone if they have an animal in the home, very often they'll say no, but if you ask if they have a dog or a cat, they say yes," he says.

But a growing number of clinicians now believe that blanket recommendations may be premature. "We must re-examine standards saying pets in the house are a risk factor for children," says Dennis Ownby, MD, professor of pediatrics and medicine at the Medical College of Georgia. Ownby, a co-investigator on the study of the protective effect of pets, tells WebMD, "Something about having a pet is associated with a lower risk of allergy. It is time to rethink our recommendations telling people to get rid of their pets." So Fluffy and Fido -- and perhaps their youngest masters -- can breathe easy for now.

Vital Information:

  • There has been a controversy among allergy specialists as to how pets influence childhood allergies, but new evidence shows that pet ownership in early childhood may have a protective effect against developing pet allergies.
  • In a study of more than 700 children, those who lived with a cat or a dog since the first year of their life were less likely to show indicators for allergy, and this effect was even more pronounced in first-born children.
  • Researchers caution that this protective effect may not extend to asthma, and owning a pet may cause severe asthma attacks in some people.
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