Feature Archive

Exposing Kids to Dogs, Cats Early Can Pay Off

Research shows early exposure to pet dander and fur can ward off allergies later.

By Jean Lawrence
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Researchers were shocked to learn that exposing children to house pets might make it less, rather than more, likely that they would develop an allergy to dander and fur. But this is just the beginning of the "tail" when it comes to accommodating allergic pet lovers.

"I had a dog growing up," recalls Karen Can of Broomall, Penn. "But both my husband and I have allergies." Then they heard about Labradoodles -- or doods, as poodle variants are called. Labradoodles are Labrador retrievers crossed with poodles. After the adorable bundle of well-stuck-on fuzz came into their lives, the Cans have not experienced allergic reactions, although they do have a friend who starts to sniffle after a few minutes in their home. "We both seem fine," Can says. "He sheds very little."

Doods can run from $1,000 to $2,000 or even higher and are sort of a "recognized mutt." They were originally "designed" for blind people who were also allergic to dogs (such as a German shepherd) with higher shedding quotients. The secret ingredient is the poodle, which is famous for its tenacious, fuzzy fur.

Dee Gerrish, owner of Lake Ridge Kennels in Cleveland, N.C., breeds Goldendoodles -- a golden retriever crossed with a poodle. She started out as a chaplain's assistant in the military in Germany, helping soldiers find homes for their pets when they left Germany. When she returned home, her sister was there with a golden retriever; her friend had a poodle.

"I was in doodle heaven," Gerrish tells WebMD. "We had seven puppies and a hundred calls wanting them!" Then someone told her there was a name for the cross-breed; that it had started in Australia.

Gerrish does not tout the match as hypoallergenic. "I don't believe there is such a thing as nonshedding," she says. "This comes up a lot from people with allergies. Every dog sheds a little. But I can wash and groom seven puppies and not see much hair, so I guess people don't see the hair all over everything and think they are not shedding at all."

Gerrish herself has asthma, but has had no problems. She takes precautions, though, washing her hands after handling the dogs, discouraging face licking, and changing clothes after clipping the doods. She also grooms her animals outside and tries to stand upwind of the flying fur. A pet's saliva, dander, and urine can have the protein that triggers allergies in some people.

Possible drawbacks of such designer dogs? They need frequent grooming, which can get expensive, and there is no guarantee of size. Gerrish's goldendoodles run from 30 pounds to 80 pounds. When they are puppies, it's potluck. This can be an unwelcome surprise for people living in apartments.

Even Doods a Don't?

"If there is a strong family history of allergy or asthma," Brian A. Smart, MD, an allergist with the DuPage Medical Group in Glen Ellyn, Ill., tells WebMD. "I say the person probably should not get a pet.

"But," Smart hastens to say, "I don't usually ask people who already have pets to part with them. They are more likely to part with me than with their pet."

There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog, though, Smart emphasizes. "The more the dog costs, the more the breeder is likely to say it won't cause allergies."

Still, Smart notes:

  • Dogs with shorter hair carry less dander, which may make the dog "less likely to trigger allergies."
  • Some breeds do shed less, which results in less hair (on surfaces) in the home.
  • Smaller dogs also have less dander and fur (because there is simply less dog).

Other "medical" hybrids include the schnoodle -- a poodle bred with a schnauzer -- and the bichon/yorkie.

Could Dogs Even Prevent Allergies?

Allergic dog lovers got a huge boost from a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002, showing that early exposure to dogs and cats actually reduced asthma sensitization in children, rather than increasing it. In other words, being around dogs and cats early in life might prevent later problems in a large percentage of cases.

"We looked at kids from birth to age 7 to see what was the biggest cause of allergies," says Dennis R. Ownby, MD, head of the section on allergy and immunology of the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, tells WebMD. "We thought high levels of dust mites were probably the No. 1 cause."