A study in the journal Clinical & Experimental Allergy reports that kids who grow up with pets are less likely to have animal allergies, especially when exposed as infants.
First, let me say that like 62% of U.S. households, our family owns a pet – a 10-year-old English bulldog named Diesel. My husband and I got Diesel after we got married because we love animals, and we now have 3 boys who love him, too.
No one in our family is allergic to dogs but our oldest son is allergic to cats.
So, back to the question – Does early exposure to cats/dogs protect children from developing allergies later?
Some background on allergies
The body’s immune system encounters many foreign particles including allergens, bacteria and viruses. The immune system’s job is to fight these disease-causing organisms and keep our bodies in a state of balance, or homeostasis.
Sometimes – based on things like genetics, diet and other health factors – our immune systems over respond to something that should be harmless (like cats or dogs) and produce a chemical signal, tipping the balance to put us into an allergic state.
There are many types of allergens, and they can cause allergic rhinitis, asthma, eczema or hives. Most people see an allergist to identify their allergy triggers so they can either avoid them or decrease their symptoms through allergy shots.
Additionally, depending on genetics and their general health, when some people are exposed to a cat or dog, their bodies produce a signal that causes them not to be allergic to cats or dogs.
So, the million dollar question is, can we pinpoint this time?
Studies of pet allergies
Studying pet allergies is difficult. Scientific opinion requires unbiased, randomized studies, and choosing to own a pet is not random.
Also, cat and dog allergens are everywhere. Even if you don’t own a pet, you will be exposed because so many households have them. This makes it tough to measure allergen levels and correlate results with symptoms.
That said, multiple studies show that the evidence between owning cats/dogs and developing asthma or allergies is not terribly overwhelming.
- Exposure to dogs during infancy may protect children from developing sensitization to outdoor airborne allergens, and some studies show that having a dog might protect against allergic sensitization and disease.
- Studies of dog exposure in a child’s first year have not been significantly associated with respiratory and allergic symptoms by the time they reach school age. We’re not completely sure why, but one thought is that dogs expose young immune systems to microbial stimuli, tipping the balance of the immune response to a non-allergic state.
- Studies on sensitization to airborne allergens, especially cat allergens, increased the incidence of asthma. Also, having cat allergies at school age increased the incidence of asthma and allergy symptoms in young adults.
The bottom line
Each child and family is unique, and making the right decision is not always simple.
Exposure to cats in childhood seems to lead to a higher risk of developing a cat allergy, especially if there’s a family history. Exposure to dogs seems to slightly protect children from developing allergies, especially if exposure occurs early.
Given the lack of overwhelming evidence, having a pet should be based on arguments other than those related to the chance of developing an allergy. If your child has already been diagnosed with a pet allergy, though, I recommend against getting a household pet to reduce exposure.
By developing a partnership with your doctor and knowing your family’s health history, you will be better able to make a choice that suits your family’s needs.