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."

A number of allergy causing factors, such as parental smoking and pets, also were checked. The researchers came up empty. "Two million dollars and nothing to show for it," exclaims Ownby. "Dust mites had no effect that we could find."

Then they thought about some findings in southern Germany that seemed to show that kids raised on farms had a lower incidence of allergies. They went back and looked at their pet questions on the survey.

"It really was surprising," Ownby says. "Being exposed to one dog lowered sensitivity to all allergens. Two dogs had a bigger effect than one dog." The effect of cats in the home was similar, so the researchers combined dogs and cats. They compared kids with no pets, one dog or cat, and two pets (dogs or cats or one of each) -- and found almost a 70% reduction in sensitivity from those with two pets.

One effect, the researchers say, may come from being licked by the pet, which transfers bacteria that changes the child's immune system. It alters it by introducing the child's immune system, which triggers allergies, to substances early.

Ownby is starting an NIH-funded study to follow up with the same kids, who are now 18. They will study more races and ethnic groups this time and factor in the weight of the pet. "Does a 20 pound dog have more of an effect than two 10-pound cats?" he wonders.

Allergists Still Cautious

"The data does not support the idea that people should get pets just to prevent allergies," Smart says. "We have dogs at home. We like pets -- and we see a great value to the family of having pets," he explains. "We have to be careful not to change everything based on one study, though."

Are there things people can do to minimize the allergic potential of a given dog or cat (even a dood)? If a child tends to be allergic, Smart says, you can limit the contact in a reasonable way. Make the bedroom 100% pet-free, he suggests. The child should also wash hands after playing with the animal. The dog or cat should also be washed once a week.

As for air filters, Smart says the value of a home filter for dog dander has not been proven. "There is some evidence these are helpful for cat allergies," he says. A vacuum cleaner with a HEPA device might also be a good idea.

Despite his research that shows pet ownership can cut sensitization, Ownby is hard-line on animals that are causing a bad problem for youngsters. "Keep the pets outside," he says.

Although allergy shots can help some, he explains, once the person is showing signs of an allergy, avoidance is best.

"Sometimes," agrees Smart, "a child is really harmed by being around an animal. It can affect sleep quality or school work."

Star Lawrence is a medical journalist based in the Phoenix area.

Published Sept. 13, 2004.


SOURCES: Karen Can, labradoodle owner, Broomall, Penn. Dee Gerrish, owner, Lake Ridge Kennels, Cleveland, N.C. Brian A. Smart, MD, allergist, DuPage Medical Group, Glen Ellyn, Ill. Dennis R. Ownby, MD, head, section on allergy and immunology, Medical College of Georgia, Augusta, Ga. Ownby DR, Cole CJ, Peterson EL, "Exposure to Dogs and Cats in the First Year of Life and Risk of Allergic Sensitization at 6 to 7 Years of Age," JAMA, Aug. 28, 2002; vol 288: No 8. www.goldendoodles.com.

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