Children’s Allergies and Family Pets
Does a diagnosis mean Fido and Fluffy have to go? by Michael J. Welch, MD, FAAAAI, FAAP, CPI
Cats and dogs are among the most frequent causes of allergies. If your child is sensitive to other allergens, it is likely that with a pet–especially an indoor pet–in the home, he or she will develop an animal allergy sooner or later.
Contrary to what many people believe, it’s not just animal hair or fur that causes asthma and allergies in sensitive youngsters. While hair or fur may be a problem for some, dander–the fine scales of dead skin that animals normally shed–and saliva can often be more potent sources of difficulties. Cats and dogs lick people who pat them, thus passing on loads of allergens. They also groom themselves by licking and nibbling, leaving an allergenic saliva coating on their fur.
Cats are commonly more allergenic than dogs. Although certain breeds of dogs are said to be less allergenic than others, studies don’t support this claim. Comparisons of dogs also show wide differences in allergenicity between individual dogs of the same breed. Reptiles, fish, and amphibians are not generally causes of allergy.
When family history makes it likely that a baby or young child will develop allergies, it’s best to postpone adopting a pet for several years until you are certain that your child is not allergic. However, in the case of an animal that has been part of the family since before the arrival of a child with allergies, decisions can be more difficult, especially when older children have formed strong attachments to the pet.
Finding out that a beloved pet is a trigger for a child’s asthma confronts many families with wrenching choices. The best course–although not a simple or a pleasant one–is to find a new home for the animal. However, for a child whose asthma is under control with medications and environmental controls, it may be enough to keep the pet permanently outside.
If this is not a practical solution, here are some other ideas to try to reduce shedding of allergenic particles and hair and keep saliva-coated hair and dander from collecting in the household dust:
- Sweep, dust, and vacuum frequently.
- Weekly bathing of the pet in warm water has also been shown to lower the allergenic potential of cats and dogs, including those that never venture outside.
- Frequent brushing may also help to make an animal less allergenic.
- Be sure to keep any pet strictly out of your allergic child’s bedroom and play areas.
- Mattress covers, air cleaners, and carpet removal are also useful.
Dogs and cats aren’t the only culprits. Small house pets such as mice, rats, rabbits, hamsters, and gerbils are occasional sources of allergens, contributing to the chronic airway inflammation of asthma. If you decide to keep any of these as a pet despite your child’s allergies, confine the animal strictly to its cage, clean the cage daily, and keep the cage away from your allergic child’s room. A youngster with allergies should not take part in cleaning the cage or caring for the pet.
Be sure to let your child’s teachers know of your child’s animal allergies to avoid difficulties with small animals that are sometimes kept as school residents, or with animals that other children may bring on classroom visits.
A household pet may be unjustly blamed for causing allergy symptoms. Don’t automatically banish Fido to the doghouse unless the results of skin testing or a specific IgE blood test (sometimes referred to as RAST) suggest that your child has an animal allergy. Occasionally, symptoms that seem to be caused by an animal are, in fact, caused by other allergies. What happens is that pets explore outdoors, then come back into the house with a load of pollens and outdoor mold spores on their coats. Every time the hay fever sufferer pats the pets, an invisible cloud of allergens is stirred up, triggering symptoms.
So, while every family must make the decision about pets when a child displays allergy symptoms, make sure the pediatrician and/or allergist help you understand the options before getting rid of Fido or Fluffy.
Michael J. Welch, MD, FAAAAI, FAAP, CPI, is the editor of Allergies and Asthma: What Every Parent Needs to Know, 2nd Edition, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Welch is co-director of the Allergy and Asthma Medical Group and Research Center in San Diego, CA, and clinical professor at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.
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