Not 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 for these conditions. 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. Research 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 at 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 had similar results, finding that early cat exposure was related to a reduction in allergy development. In addition, a review of available studies found that early exposure to pets was associated with a decreased risk of eczema. However, 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 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 a lower risk of allergy is interesting and suggestive, but pending larger and better scientific studies, it should still be regarded as preliminary.
Until we have more solid evidence, parents will have to make decisions about pet ownership without knowing the health consequences on their newborns from their furry friends.
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:
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease
About Kids Health
Allergy Asthma Information Association
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Celedón JC, Litonjua AA, Ryan L, et al. Exposure to cat allergen, maternal history of asthma, and wheezing in first five years of life. Lancet. 2002;360(9335):781-2.
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Pet allergy. American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology website. Available at: http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/allergies/pet-allergy.aspx. Accessed January 21, 2014.
Perzanowski MS, Rönmark E, Platts-Mills TA, et al. Effect of cat and dog ownership on sensitization and development of asthma among preteenage children. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2002;166(5):696-702.
Portnoy J, Kennedy K, et al. Environmental assessment and exposure control: a practice parameter--furry animals. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2012;108(4):223e1-233e15.
Steele MT, Ma OJ, Nakase J, et al. Epidemiology of animal exposures presenting to emergency departments. Acad Emerg Med. 2007;14:398-403.
When pets are the problem. Healthy Children website. Available at: http://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/allergies-asthma/pages/When-Pets-Are-the-Problem.aspx. Updated May 11, 2013. Accessed January 21, 2014.
7/6/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Langan SM, Flohr C, Williams HC. The role of furry pets in eczema: a systematic review. Arch Dermatol. 2007;143:1570-1577.
Last reviewed January 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
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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