Pets and asthma

  • Pets are a great way to beat the blues. Not only do they offer their unconditional love, recent research shows they may even be the key to preventing asthma.

    Traditionally, children who have asthma often miss out on the pet experience because they're told it will make their asthma worse. Even when there's no asthma, just a family history of it, parents often rule a pet out because of fears it could help bring the disease on.

    But recent research suggests children who grow up with dogs may be less likely to get respiratory infections and asthma later in life. Researchers did some experiments with mice that were exposed to dust from homes with dogs. They found that these mice didn't seem to get the virus which is known to increase the risk of infants developing asthma. They also found the mice developed a distinct group of bacteria in their gastrointestinal tract, and suggest that this may provide a protective effect against the virus.

    Asthma can be triggered by allergies. So if you're asthmatic and know you're allergic to pets, there's no doubt avoiding pets is important if you don't want to make your asthma worse. The cat family leads the pet allergy list but other pets such as dogs, birds, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, horses, rats and mice also carry or produce allergens. Depending on the animal, allergens are found in the saliva, sweat, hair, urine or dead skin flakes (dander). Cat allergen, which mainly comes from sebaceous glands in the skin, is particularly problematic. It can remain in a house for months after a cat has gone, invisibly clinging to furniture and walls.

    But what if there are no pet allergies?

    Until recently it was thought that children with a tendency to allergies became allergic to things like pets, the more they were exposed to them. But recent research suggests early exposure to certain allergens may help the immune system mature faster to protect against allergies and asthma. More work needs to be done to work out just how much exposure is protective, and whether it works across a range of allergies.

    The bottom line is if you're confident your child doesn't have pet allergies, the old advice to avoid pets can be ignored. Don't rush out the door to get a pup just yet, the findings simply mean you can decide if a pet's for you based on the same factors any family would consider.

    Here are some tips to start your pet test:
    • Spend time with someone else's animals or perhaps borrow or care for a pet for a weekend. This way you can check if you or anyone in your family is likely to react. This can save you from being heartbroken if you have to return a new pet.
    • Consider alternatives such as aquarium fish and hermit crabs if you or someone in the family is allergic to pets. Or perhaps spiders if you are feeling adventurous?

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