Friday, October 22, 2010

Research finds babies exposed to pets have fewer allergies

If you have been told having multiple pets in the same house as a baby is unhealthy, listen up.

According to researchers from the Medical College of Georgia, pets might actually prevent some children from developing allergies later on in life.

"Allergists have been trained for generations that dogs and cats in the house were bad because they increased the risk of you becoming allergic to them; we know that before you become allergic to something, you have to be repeatedly exposed to it," said Dr. Dennis Ownby, lead researcher of the study.

But instead, the researchers found that children raised in a house with two or more dogs or cats during the first year of life may be less likely to develop allergic diseases compared with children raised without pets.

The study, supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"The striking finding here is that high pet exposure early in life appears to protect against not only pet allergies but also other types of common allergies, such as allergy to dust mites, ragweed, and grass," said Dr. Marshall Plaut, chief of the allergic mechanisms section at NIAID. "This new finding changes the way scientists think about pet exposure; scientists must now figure out how pet exposure causes a general shift of the immune system away from an allergic response."

The researches followed 474 children from birth to age 6 or 7. When the children were 1, the researchers contacted parents by telephone to find out how many pets were in the home. When the children were 2, researchers measured the level of dust mite allergen in their bedrooms. When the children were 6 or 7, the researchers tested them for allergic antibodies to common allergens by two approaches - a skin-prick test and a blood measurement.

They found that children exposed to two or more dogs or cats during the first year of life were on average 66 to 77 percent less likely to have common allergies, as compared with children exposed to only one or no pets during their first year.

So how does man's best friends protect against allergies? The researchers suggested that bacteria carried by pets may be responsible for suppressing the immune system's allergic response. These bacteria release molecules called endotoxins. Endotoxins are believed to shift the developing immune system away from responding to allergens, and, instead stimulate cells that block allergic reactions.

"The bottom line is that maybe part of the reason we have so many children with allergies and asthma is we live too clean a life," Ownby said. "What happens when kids play with cats or dogs? The animals lick them. How many cute pictures like that have you seen? The lick is transferring a lot of bacteria and that may be changing the way the child's immune system responds in a way that helps protect against allergies."

Ownby said that if researchers could find out exactly what it is about pets or the bacteria they carry that prevents the allergic response, scientists might be able to develop new allergy therapies.

In the meantime, consider putting this new research finding to the test and possibly protecting your children's health by adopting a dog or cat from the Yavapai Humane Society. Visit our shelters at 1625 Sundog Ranch Road in Prescott or our website at to see the wonderful endotoxin-filled critters available for adoption.

Ed Boks is the executive director of the Yavapai Humane Society. He can be reached at or by calling 445-2666, ext. 21.