I’ve been an allergy-sufferer for almost my entire life. Dogs, dust mites, grass—you name it, I’m probably allergic to it. (As my allergist put it to me at the tender age of five: “You probably shouldn’t have any animals in the house… But you can still hug the trees!” I was devastated.) So I can relate to parents who may be hesitant to introduce a pet to their young child—especially if they themselves have ever suffered from being around animals (itchy eyes, itchy nose, itchy throat—so much itching.)
However, you may want to think twice before deciding against that four-legged companion completely. A recent study suggests that not only is it unlikely that being around a dog or a cat for most of the childhood years will increase a child’s chances of developing allergies as some studies have shown, but early exposure could actually lower the risk.
Researchers at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit studied 565 18-year-olds who had been followed from birth. They found that teens who had cats during their first year of life had 50 percent less chance of developing pet allergies later, compared to babies born into cat-free homes. Boys who lived with a dog during the first year of life had about half the risk of developing allergies as compared to those without a dog in the house, though, oddly, this wasn’t true for girls—a fact that researchers were unable to explain.
In fact, being exposed to pets anytime after the first year of life seemed to have no effect on allergy risk at all, which, researchers feel indicates that a baby’s first year is a critical time when it comes to the possibility of a child developing pet allergies. The reason for this? Researchers believe it may lie in the “hygiene theory”—the idea that early exposure to certain environmental factors, like dust or animal dander, might trigger the immune system to develop a tolerance for common allergens, therefore reducing the likelihood of a child developing sensitivities.
Still, researchers are quick to point out that even though the study indicates that having pets early in life could help protect kids from allergies, this doesn’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship—meaning you probably shouldn’t rush out to get a pet in the hopes that it’ll make your child immune to pet allergies. However, if you’re planning on getting a pet, it might be better to get one sooner rather than later.
Fortunately for me, my allergies have never been life threatening, and my mom agreed to keeping pets in the house, so long as my symptoms didn’t get out of hand. To this day, I live quite happily with a cat of my own, and though I still take a pill everyday to help relieve some of that awful itching, I’m an animal lover and a pet owner, and I wouldn’t have grown up any other way.
What about you? Did you grow up with animals and allergies? Do you think exposing your child early in life to common allergens could prevent them from developing allergy symptoms later in life?