Last updated at 7:43 AM on 14th June 2011
Having a pet in the house during the first year of a child's life could halve the risk of them becoming allergic to the animals, a study suggests.
Parents often want to know if keeping a cat or dog will raise their baby's chances of being sensitised to these animals in later life.
There have been mixed results from previous research.
Healthy germs: Having a cat or dog at home in a child's formative years can help cut the chances of pet allergies
But the U.S. study of almost 600 children says it does not increase the risk and suggests they may even benefit from early exposure.
At the age of 18, the children supplied blood samples to the researchers, who measured antibodies to dog and cat allergens in the samples. Information about pet ownership had also been collected.
The results of the study in the journal Clinical & Experimental Allergy showed that being exposed to the specific animal in the first year of life was the most important period of time.
The exposure protected some people against becoming allergic to the type of pet.
Young men whose families had kept a dog during the first year of life had about half the risk of becoming sensitised to dogs compared with non dog-owning families.
Both men and women were about half as likely to be sensitised to cats if they had lived with a cat in the first year of life, compared to those who did not live with cats.
Lead researcher Ganesha Wegienka, of the department of public health sciences, Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit, said: 'This research provides further evidence that experiences in the first year of life are associated with health status later in life, and that early life pet exposure does not put most children at risk of being sensitised to these animals later in life.'
Many experts believe exposure to pets at an early age may help immunise children against allergies and asthma.
Cat allergy is the most common pet allergy, affecting up to 40 per cent of asthma sufferers.
It is caused by a tiny protein in a cat's skin flakes and saliva, which is deposited on the fur when the animal grooms itself by licking.
The allergen is shed into the air. Breathed in by an allergy sufferer, it can trigger an allergic reaction within minutes.
The symptoms usually include itchy eyes, sneezing, asthma and the skin rashes typical of eczema.
Cats can cause allergies in households which do not have a cat, by their allergen being introduced on a visitor’s clothing.
Dogs also produce an allergen in their saliva and skin, but are less likely to provoke a reaction.
Experts believe the protection comes from more germs being in the home which stops it being 'too clean'.
Children who are constantly licked by a dog may be protected by early exposure to bugs that live in their pet's mouth.
It is thought that too-clean lifestyles are driving the rise in allergies and asthma because they fail to wake up the immune system.
Previous generations were exposed to more dirt, and the micro-organisms in it, which helped their immune systems develop resistance.
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As a kid, I was always allergic to the sun - even when i went to america when i was 16 i used to have to have a dip in my aunt and uncle's pool in the evening to stop itching! Then i went to live in another country - really hot most of the year - dry heat - approx 40 degrees in summer and gradually, very gradually i found i could tolerate the sun - you have to do everything in small doses - not in one huge dose. of course, i'm still allergic to various washing powders and floor cleaners - i can smell a particular brand of washing powder - don't know which it is - smells like lavender - and ihave to run out wherever i am, because i start throwing up - just wish i knew which brand it was!
- Sarah, London, 14/6/2011 11:52
My family always had cats, dogs, chickens, rabbits etc .i was diagnosed as asthmatic when i was a year old and it wasn't until I married and we had our own place with no animals that my asthma eased . Even now when I go to other peoples homes and they have cats or dogs my chest tightens up. I would love to have a dog but know it is not a good idea . I have three brothers and two sisters one brother developed asthma when he was fairly young my mum and one sister developed asthma in their 40s. My dad two brothers and one sister are fine . My son has asthma my daughter doesn't. . If you are going to get asthma you are going to get it . I don't think having animals is going to prevent it and to have animals around when you have asthma makes breathing even harder..I know some people with asthma can tolerate animals but some of us can't. As with anything you can't generalise
- Mrs P Cooper, High Wycombe UK, 14/6/2011 11:07
I have been allergic to cats since I was a child - usually manifesting itself in the form of asthma and eye/skin irritations etc. In my experience, I found that continued and consistant exposure to a specific cat (or cats) meant that my symptons virtually disappeared after a period of about 2-3 months in its/their company. They would, however, return if I spent more than approximately 2 weeks away from the cat(s) in question. Dog saliva also used to irriate my skin, but I appear to have grown out of that now. Although we did not have pets when I was young, both our grandparents did, so our contact with animals was very regular. Neither of my siblings had/have animal allergies either. I would think that, like most things, people will react (or not) depending on their genetic 'make-up' combined with a number of factors, including the enviroment that they live in. Personally, I feel that good interaction with animals can only be a positive thing, for children and adults alike.
- Zoe, London, 14/6/2011 10:53
Doesn't make a difference. We have had cats my whole life (i'm 25 now) and two years ago i suddenly developed a severe allergy to cats. There is no reason for it it's just one of those things.
- Vicki, Kent,UK, 14/6/2011 10:44
Pets can teach children all about love , caring and respect. It's all down to common sense, keep your young children away from the litter tray. and any dog mess. Keep your home clean by using as few products as possible. My Grandmother had a lovely clean home just by using household soap, hot water and fresh air, non of her children had allergies of any sort, and they always had pets.
- Carole, UK, 14/6/2011 09:54
2 dogs, 2 cats, 2 budgies, 3 chickens and one of my kids has got hayfever- can't win!
- Mum of 4, Bolton, England, 14/6/2011 09:51
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