Most children, even the youngest of children, are delighted to be around cats and dogs. But these pets carry plenty of germs and allergens, prompting researchers to ask: Are cats and dogs really safe for children?
A study published in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that, contrary to many parents' fears, owning cats or dogs does not increase a child's risk of developing allergies, and in fact, may actually protect them.
The study's lead author, Dr. Dennis Ownby of the Medical College of Georgia, says that even he was "very surprised" by the results.
Ownby and colleagues followed more than 470 children from birth to age 6 or 7, comparing those exposed to cats and dogs during their first year of life to those who were not.
By using skin-prick tests for detecting common allergies, the researchers found that, contrary to what many doctors had been taught for years, children who had lived with a pet were not at greater risk.
"Parents don't have to be concerned about keeping cats and dogs in the house in terms of increasing the risks of allergies to their children," said Ownby.
The More, the Merrier
Even more remarkable, children who had two or more dogs or cats had an even greater reduction, up to 77 percent, in risk of allergies. And not only were they less likely to develop allergies to cats and dogs, but also to dust mites, short ragweed and blue grass.
Researchers suggest this protective effect may be the result of early exposure to lots of bacteria that are carried by dogs and cats. Exposing young children to these bacteria helps "exercise" their immune systems early in life so that they're better able to resist allergic diseases later.
Previous research showed that children raised on farms and exposed to animals were less likely to have allergies as well.
"There's something very important in that first year of life when the immune system is developing that we can retrain it away from an allergic response," said Dr. William Davis of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York.
And while researchers are not encouraging parents to buy dogs or cats just to reduce a child's allergy risk, they say if a family already has one or more animals, there's no need to get rid of them.