“Mom, Dad, can we get a pet? Please?”
It’s a question that many parents hear from their youngsters.
Unfortunately, the decision process can be difficult to navigate if the child in
question suffers from allergies related to dogs, cats, bunnies and birds.
Parents shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by this situation, as the following brief
review of current research may help those seeking a solution that makes
Millions of Americans suffer from fur or feather allergies.
These people have immune systems that overreact to the harmless proteins (called
allergens) in pet dander, which comes from dead skin cells, saliva or urine. Pet
hair is not the primary problem, but does collect dander. When normal shedding
occurs, the allergens can spread and persist in the environment. Recent
estimates put the total U.S. pet population at more than 100 million companion
animals, about four pets for every ten people. With nearly six out of ten people
experiencing at least occasional contact with companion animals, chances are
that someone you know suffers from pet-related allergies.
For the 10% of children who are deemed highly allergic, doctors
almost uniformly advocate avoidance. These are children who have a dramatic
reaction with even intermittent exposure. Your first stop – especially before
searching for adoptable animals – should be a visit with your pediatrician to
inform your decision-making process. Your child may need to undergo some basic
testing, but armed with the results you’ll be better able to determine whether a
pet should be added to the family.
For children with only minor symptoms, I think the benefits of
having a companion animal usually outweigh the annoyances for many families. In
fact, several studies have demonstrated that childhood allergies actually become
less severe the longer kids live with a family pet. Other studies have shown
that children who care for dogs during their early years later become more
empathetic and less likely to have behavior problems.
If your child has pet-dander allergies, there are steps you can
take to minimize the presence of allergens in your home. Weekly bathing can
significantly reduce the amount of dander in the home environment. Regular,
thorough house cleaning - especially of soft surfaces like carpets and furniture
- and designating the child’s room as a pet-free zone can make a huge difference.
Also helpful is the use an air purifier in your child’s bedroom and using
superior-grade HEPA filters in your central air system. I highly encourage you
to have your child wash his hands after petting or playing with your companion
animal, and making him mindful of keeping his hands away from his face during
Once you’ve committed to these lifestyle changes, it’s time for
locating the perfect companion animal. If you’re planning on adopting a dog,
look for breeds with soft, constantly growing hair. Canines such as Poodles,
Bichons, Cockapoos and Portugese Water Dogs (like the famous First Dog Bo) may
prove to be less likely to aggravate allergic responses for some individuals,
although some experts claim that this may only be because they tend to be washed
and groomed more often than other breeds.
Contrary to popular belief, there are no true hypo-allergenic
breeds of dogs and cats. In fact, even hairless breeds can provoke symptoms. A
2011 American Journal of Rhinology and Allergy study compared the level of
allergens present in homes of hypo-allergenic dogs versus other breeds. The
researchers examined dust samples from 173 homes with 60 different breeds of
dogs, including 11 breeds considered hypoallergenic. The results showed no real
difference in homes with hypoallergenic dogs and other breeds. Of course, this
is just one study, and further research is still needed. The bottom line is that
you’ll need to be vigilant, and commit to the measures outlined above to
minimize allergens in your home for your child’s safety.
My recommendation is any family or individual seeking to adopt a
less-allergenic companion animal should ask a shelter, breeder or rescue
organization to agree to a week-long trial run. Have the allergic individual
spend time with the companion animal to gauge their effect on the allergic
Thank you so much for all you do to make the world a better
place for companion animals,
Dr. Jane Bicks