For many children, a beloved cat or dog is as much a part of the family as Mom, Dad, brother, or sister. But for others, a furry pet means wheezing, eczema, rhinitis, or other allergic reactions.
At first, it would seem logical to keep children at risk for allergies away from household pets. But research conducted at the UW Department of Pediatrics found the opposite to be true. Exposure to dogs in infancy—especially around the time of birth—can actually influence children’s immune development and reduce the likelihood of certain allergic diseases.
Newborn Exposure the Key
The research study, led by Department of Pediatrics Professors Robert Lemanske, MD, and James Gern, MD, evaluated 275 children who had at least one parent with respiratory allergies or asthma.
Each year for three years, investigators asked whether the family had a dog at home, determined whether the children had symptoms of atopic dermatitis (AD; a type of eczema) and wheezing, and checked for immune responses in the children’s blood.
The results? Children who had a dog at home as newborns were much less likely to have AD (12% versus 27%) and wheezing (19% versus 36%) by their third birthday.
Early exposure, it seems, is the key. In fact, children who got a dog after birth did not seem to have the same health benefits.
Influencing Immune Development
The reasons for this merit further exploration. Investigators think that exposure to dogs may contribute to a critical step in a child’s rapidly developing immune system—a step that may occur shortly after birth.
Will future research shed light, so to speak, on this immunologic mechanism? UW researchers hope so. Better understanding of the process could lead to better allergy prevention strategies for children.
And that would help parents breathe more easily, too.