Researchers in Sweden analyzed data on almost 1,300 children. They found that kids exposed to cats or dogs in the home as babies had lower rates of asthma, eczema, and seasonal allergies compared to children who grew up in pet-free households.
The researchers pooled data from two separate studies. One study followed 250 children from birth through 8 to 9 years old. The children's parents provided information about pet ownership, and the kids underwent medical testing for allergies at several points during the research. The second study surveyed parents to collect information on pets and children's specific allergy symptoms.
Results from both groups revealed the same interesting trend: The more pets in the home during a child's first year of life, the lower that child's risk of developing allergies later on. About half of children who grew up with no pets had allergy symptoms by ages 7 to 9. That dropped to about a third of kids in households with one pet, and to less than a quarter of children in families with two or more pets, according to the study published in PLOS One.
Want no allergies at all? Five might be the magic number. A couple of families in the study had five cats or dogs (and presumably a large back yard!), and their children reportedly had zero allergies. But since the proportion of families in this situation was so small it's hard to draw any definite conclusion.
Other studies have also linked early exposure to animals with reduced allergy risk. This is the first to examine whether exposure to multiple animals correlates with increased allergy protection.
Experts think young children's immune systems may get a boost from being around the dirt and microbes that animals carry on their bodies. Exposure to these germs makes kids more tolerant of allergens, the theory goes.
Don't own or want to own pets? There are other ways to help protect your child from allergies, including exclusively breastfeeding your baby for at least four months. If you already have a pet, here are some tips on how to introduce your furry friend to a new baby.
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