Fido in the Home

Vol. 17 •Issue 4 • Page 26
Fido in the Home

A New Approach to Old Problem of Kids, Pets

It was difficult for Jill to look Joshua in the eye, to see the dejected countenance on her son’s face. The youth had lobbied for a dog since he was old enough to talk, and Jill had eventually relented to the plea, once she believed Joshua was old enough to handle the responsibility of having a pet.

But a mere three months after Pharaoh came to live with the Miller family, Jill was spending much of her time looking for a new home for Joshua’s furry four-legged pooch.

From the first moment Pharaoh moved into the Miller house, Joshua had experienced increasing difficulty in breathing. It was almost imperceptible at the offset. First it was a cough every now and then. Then more frequent coughing and sneezing.

Jill, the good mother, marshaled her son to the doctor’s office, convinced Josh had a longer than usual cold. Unaware the Miller’s had added a pet to the family, their pediatrician prescribed some cough syrup for Josh.

A final straw broke at Joshua’s eighth birthday party.

Joshua and several of his friends played outdoors in the yard with Pharaoh all day. Josh was fine when he went to bed. However, about 11 p.m., he woke up because of his breathing difficulty. Jill tried the usual back-to-back Albuterol mini-neb treatments that worked for Josh’s infrequent asthma attacks, but nothing seemed to work.

In desperation, the mother rushed Josh to the emergency room, and after the ER staff was unable to break him, Josh was admitted to the hospital.


Joshua’s situation is not uncommon. Doctors often recommend that children with asthma should avoid cats and dogs. However, new research shows avoidance may not be the best policy. In fact, just the opposite might be true. The earlier children are exposed to pets, the less likely they are to develop allergies to them, according to a Pennsylvania researcher.

“Recent studies show that maybe some children who are exposed to animals early are protected later in life,” said Derek Johnson, MD, an allergist at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia and medical adviser to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). “Evidence shows that in places where people have exposure to germs, these societies don’t have the problems with allergies the way we do in the U.S.”

According to a study published in the October 2003 Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (JACI), researchers at the Obstructive Lung Disease in Northern Sweden Study Group and at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville found children who were exposed to high levels of cat allergen early in life might well circumvent the development of allergies to cats later in the life.

The researchers found that even though cats are among the pets most likely to trigger allergic responses, keeping these animals in the home was not related to any increased risk for the development of sensitization to cat dander between age 7 and 11 years.

Children who continually owned cats or dogs had a lower incidence of developing allergies to an animal compared to new pet owners and to those who had been exposed earlier in life only. Among the children allergic to cats, 80 percent had never lived with a cat in the home.


“The theory is that being exposed to allergens early in life reduces risk of becoming allergic,” said allergy specialist Dr. Dennis Ownby of the Department of Allergy and Immunology at the Medical College of Georgia Health System in Augusta.

“A second theory is that cats and dogs reduce the risk of endotoxins or a common bacteria. If you increase the child’s exposure to endotoxins, you reduce the child’s risk of becoming allergic,” he added.

Researchers and their colleagues in the allergy community were stunned by the results of the JACI study.

“This study was shocking to a lot of people because it was expected that exposure would increase the risk,” said Ownby. “But researchers found the opposite.”

The fact that allergy symptoms increase when a person allergic to pets is exposed to the allergen has resulted in the assumption that avoiding cats and other pets at home protects against the development of an allergy to the animal.

Current findings from the October 2003 JACI study go against traditional thinking that increased exposure to cats and dogs results in more severe symptoms.

In fact, researchers found that persistent exposure to high levels of cat and dog allergen appears to offer protection against the development of allergy to cats and dogs among both boys and girls.

Still, many allergists say, if a child is having difficulty with asthma and allergies while living in the same environment as a pet, it may be time to make new living arrangements for the family’s four-legged friend.

So the question remains at this point: Is Jill doing the right thing trying to find a new home for her son’s pooch? In the long run, is she running a risk her son may develop increasing intolerance to dogs or cats? Jill is caught in a web. The new study indicates Josh might eventually develop a tolerance to the pet dander; on the other hand, perhaps Jill delayed the purchase of a dog too long and has moved her child into an intolerance zone from which he will be unable to escape.

Marc Willis is a South Carolina television reporter.

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