Contrary to prevailing wisdom, two new studies suggest that children and adults who share their home with dogs or cats are less likely to develop allergies to their furry friends. The new findings may come as welcome news to expectant parents worrying that they will have to give up their beloved pug or tabby cat because allergies run in their family. In one study, published in August in the Journal of the American Medical Association, only 15.4 percent of the children with two cats or dogs in the house during the first year of life showed sensitivity to dogs or cats. Thirty-four percent of the children with one dog or cat, or no pets, had a positive skin test for dog or cat allergy. To arrive at their findings, the researchers, led by Dennis R. Ownby, M.D., of the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, assessed the homes of a group of 474 healthy children, starting at 1 year of age and continuing until they were 6 or 7 years old. At the end of the study period, all of the children were tested for six common allergies, including dog and cat hair. The researchers found that kids who lived with two cats or dogs as infants were also half as likely to test positive for any one of the six common allergens compared with children with fewer or no pets. It’s called "dirty environment protection". The results support previous research that has found children growing up on farms have fewer allergies because increased exposure to common bacteria and their byproducts — called endotoxins — somehow causes the developing immune system to become less allergy-prone.
In another study, owning a cat protected children from developing asthma in three Swedish communities. "In fact, even having lived with a cat significantly reduced a child's chances of being allergic to cat allergens," says study researcher Matt Perzanowski, M.P.H., doctoral candidate at Columbia University School of Public Health in New York City. This study appeared in September in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
Can Fido stay? But, Perzanowski cautions, "We haven’t shown that people who have allergies or asthma should go out and get pets. We can say that people who are at risk for becoming asthmatic or allergic don’t necessarily need to avoid getting a pet." However, "if symptoms occur, a family should still remove the pet," he says. "This is reassuring that people with kids don’t have to give their pet away if allergies run in the family," says New York City pulmonologist E. Neil Schachter, M.D., author of Life And Breath. "It’s a painful thing when people have to give away the pets that they have had for years." That said, there are ways to reduce allergens in the home, Dr. Schachter adds. "There should be no carpeting in the house — especially in the bedroom — and don’t let pets sleep in the bedroom or on the bed," he says. Animal dander and other allergens take up residence in carpet. Clear the air with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter that captures airborne particles and common household allergens, such as pollen, pet dander, tobacco smoke particles, dust and mold spores." Dr. Schachter suggests designating one chair — such as a leather chair that doesn’t hold the allergen as much as an upholstered chair — where the pet is allowed, but the allergic family member is not.
Why go through all the trouble? If you have a dog or cat, you probably don’t have to ask. But recent studies have shown that there are multiple health benefits to owning a pet. Several studies also have demonstrated that pet owners tend to have lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels than non-pet owners do, and are therefore at a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.