Should you thank your childhood dog or cat for your ability to tolerate pets later in life? According to research, yes! Not only does growing up with a pet improve emotional and cognitive development in kids, it can also reduce the risk of those kids becoming allergic to those types of pets later in life.
Pet exposure and immunology
It's not exactly a recent study, but it's good and interesting info nonetheless! According to a 2011 study published in the journal Clinical and Experimental Allergy, about half of the participants who grew up with a pet in the home experienced a reduced chance of having allergies to those types of pets, like cats and dogs, later in life. A 2015 study in JAMA Pediatrics confirmed similar info. One key detail of this study is that it's not just having a pet in the home that can build immunity to pet-related allergens, it's also the age of the person when the pet was present. According to the study, people who had a childhood pet in their early life, especially in the first year of life showed the most consistent reduction in pet allergies as adults.
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Pet ownership among young children and early exposure
To gather their results, the team of scientists took into account the biological sex of the 835 study participants, their birth delivery method, their parent's allergy history, and what type of pet they had in the home — dog, or cat. 671 consenting and eligible participants were then monitored 18 years later. The team found that males who grew up with an indoor dog in their first year of life had half the risk of being allergic to dogs at 18. Similarly, the teens who grew up with a cat in the home had about the same risk of being allergic to cats.
One interesting find was that the parent's history of allergies didn't seem to affect their child's allergies, but the method of delivery did — teens who were born via c-section were less likely than those born vaginally to display allergy symptoms to canines, so long as they had a dog in the home in early childhood during that first year of life.
The study measured the sensitization levels of kids in household pet homes in a few different age groups as well, which is how they found out that first-year exposure is so important. Of the 101 teens studied, 68 of them had pet allergies when they had a dog in the home over the age of 13, while only 30 of them had allergies when they had a dog in the home from birth to one year.
116 teens were measured in the cat study, and it produced similar results. 40 teens were sensitized to cats when the feline was added to a home over the age of 13, while only 13 were sensitized when they had one in the home as babies.
Why pets help our immune system
While this can't be explained for certain, scientists hypothesize that pets help our child's immune systems by exposing us to a wider range of bacteria and microbial levels. This essentially creates a diverse microbiome of the home environment, which allows our bodies and immune systems to adapt away from creating a protective effect, and instead just see pet dander as not worth sounding the alarms over. Pet exposure at such a young age can limit the amount of antibodies and immunoglobulin produced by the body, which can decrease allergic diseases.
Common misconceptions about pets and health
We've all heard warnings about pets, pet illnesses, and what that could mean for everyone's health. but what's really true, and what are some common misconceptions?
Fear of pet allergies
Many parents and other family members worry that bringing a pet into the home can lead to pet allergies, and it certainly can. As this research shows, indoor cat and dog ownership can decrease your child's chances of experiencing allergy symptoms later in life, but only if the pet is in the home in that child's first year of life.
Fear of disease transmission from pets
People can get diseases from pets, that's a fact. Bacterial diseases on the skin are especially transmissible, and cat waste can result in toxoplasmosis in humans (this is why some people say pregnant women should not have cats in the home — or at least should not manage their liter boxes.) Zoonotic diseases are usually easily treatable and can be largely avoided by keeping your pet up to date with their vaccinations.
Some pet-born illnesses are serious, however, and can come with serious health consequences, especially for immunocompromised persons. For example, cat scratch fever, which is a bacterial infection, usually clears up on its own. But if you are immunocompromised, it can lead to complications of the brain, eyes, and lungs, especially among young children aged 5 to 14, and immunocompromised people.
Can kids get sick from pets?
Yes. Kids, or any person regardless of age, can contract viral diseases like rabies, as well as bacterial diseases like salmonella, and fungal diseases like ringworm. Dogs can also share diseases like kennel cough and parvo, and our pets can even contract colds from each other, as well as other illnesses from us.
The bottom line
Science shows that there are a lot of emotional and physical benefits to having a pet in the home. Kids who grow up with a pet from a young age seem to have a reduced risk of becoming allergic to those types of pets later in life. Talk to your pediatrician about it if you have more questions, of course, but the studies do show that you can feel good about adopting a family cat or dog!