Parents of young children can breathe easier about having a dog or cat in the home thanks to a recent study led by Dr. Ganesa Wegienka of the Department of Health Sciences, Henry Ford Hospital. The study followed a group of children from birth until adulthood to track pet exposure and whether the children developed pet allergies.
An allergy is an inappropriate reaction by the body’s immune system. When the immune system perceives something to be a threat, such as skin flakes (dander) from a dog or cat, it triggers a release of chemicals to defend the body. The first time the body is exposed to a new allergen, the immune system creates a special antibody known as Immunoglobulin E (IgE) that is designed specifically to defend against that allergen.
The next time that allergen enters the body, the antibodies jump into action to eliminate the harmful particles. This process causes the symptoms commonly associated with allergies including runny nose and red, watery, itchy eyes. An allergic reaction can also cause swelling around the mouth and in the airways and in severe cases can cause breathing difficulties that can lead to death.
Parents often question whether it is good for the health of young children to have pets in the household. This is a concern for many families since approximately 60 percent of people in the U.S. have contact with dogs or cats, and between 15 and 30 percent of people who have allergies are also allergic to dogs or cats. (Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America)
To help answer that question, researchers followed 565 patients from birth until age 18. During that time, the children’s parents reported on their children’s exposure to cats and dogs. At the end of 18 years, scientists tested each patient’s blood to check for the presence of antibodies to cat or dog allergen.
The researchers found that the first year of life was the key time period when pet exposure seemed to provide protection against later pet allergies. Young men whose families had indoor dogs were half as likely to develop a dog allergy later in life as those who did not have exposure to dogs during their first year. For cats, both men and women were half as likely to develop an allergy if they lived with cats as young children.
The research team concluded that pet exposure early in life did not create a higher risk for most children to become allergic to pets later in life. They also noted the key role experiences in the first year of life can have on the overall health of a person later in life.
Reviewed June 16, 2011
Edited by Alison Stanton