As a child, I spent every single summer on my aunt and uncle’s farm, where there was no shortage of every kind of farm animal imaginable, and especially always an abundance of sweet, furry kittens. Growing up, we always had dogs but never cats, so I was especially interested in them. Alas, my only worry was that I was (and still am) severely allergic to cats – which was probably why we didn’t have them at home. One teeny-tiny touch to their silky fur would set off a chain reaction of a myriad of allergy and asthma symptoms, which left me wheezing and struggling to breathe.
I remember, to this day, arriving at the farm. Before I could even get out of the car, my mother would tell me, “Betheny, do NOT touch the cats!” Two hours later, I’d be in the farmhouse kitchen begging for Benadryl, sucking on an inhaler as my mom asked, “Did you touch the cats?” I would always reply “No,” but my sneezing, watery, itchy eyes, runny nose, wheezing and rash always told the true story. Still, no allergy or asthma symptoms were horrible enough to keep me from wanting to play with those sweet little fur-balls.
It looks like I’m not alone. Allergies to pets with fur or feathers are quite common, especially among people who have other allergies or asthma. Fifteen to 30 percent of people with other allergies have allergic reactions to cats and dogs.
It’s interesting to note that people with dog allergies may be allergic to all dogs, or only to some breeds. I’ve actually noticed this myself, as my boxers do not bother my allergies at all, but interacting with my parents’ Labrador leaves me in a sneezing fit.
What actually causes those pesky pet allergies? The job of our immune system is to find foreign substances such as viruses and bacteria, and get rid of them. Normally, this is our body’s way of protecting us from dangerous diseases. People with pet allergies have supersensitive immune systems, which react to harmless proteins in the pet’s dander (dead skin that is shed), saliva or urine.
Now, a new study actually shows that interaction with animals at a young age may combat asthma. A new report presented to the American Society for Microbiology finds that having a dog or cat at home could prevent asthma in children, and shows that letting your children interact with animals could be a key to developing healthy airways.
But wait. Don’t pet hair and dander contribute to allergy and asthma symptoms?
Dr. Tamiko Ralston from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles explained that in her studies, children who were raised from birth with dogs seemed protected from a common childhood infection, called RSV.
“They didn’t have any of the inflammation, the mucous production. They seemed to be sort of protected against the disease,” she said. The RSV infection is believed to contribute to asthma. She went on to say, “I think it’s kind of exciting that they might actually be able to identify the type of microbe that protects against RSV, and that could be helpful in terms of preventing RSV infections later on,” she said.
Being born into a house that has dogs seems to be more helpful than trying to introduce them into a home with a 5-year-old, so when you bring Fido home can make all the difference in the world.