Research

Science Says You Should Get Your Kids a Pet

Babies exposed to pet allergens may be less likely to develop asthma.
Cat

Photo by Lisa Weidenfeld

A new study says pets, particularly cats, may have health benefits for (very) young children.

According to the research, which was published Tuesday in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, babies who are exposed to pet allergens during infancy may be less likely to develop asthma as they grow up.

The paper is the work of researchers from a handful of institutions across the country, including the Boston University School of Medicine, who are involved in the ongoing Urban Environment and Childhood Asthma (URECA) study. Since 2005, URECA investigators have been studying high-risk children in Boston, Baltimore, New York, and St. Louis. Babies in urban environments are generally more likely to develop asthma than infants in rural areas, and all of the children in the study also have at least one parent with asthma or allergies.

For the latest paper, researchers measured the concentration of allergens in indoor dust samples to assess the connection between home environment and asthma development. Kids exposed to higher levels of pet allergens during their first three years of life, researchers noticed, were less likely to have developed asthma by age 7. (Out of 442 children, 130 had asthma after seven years.) Both cat and dog allergens were related to a decreased risk, but the connection was only statistically significant for cats, meaning the effect of dog allergens could be chalked up to chance.

On a less cuddly note, the researchers also observed a connection between mouse and cockroach allergens and a decreased risk of asthma. Hey, at least there’s a silver lining for those of us struggling with pest problems.

While prior research has shown that limiting allergen exposure may keep existing asthma in check, “Our observations imply that exposure to a broad variety of indoor allergens, bacteria, and bacterial products early in life may reduce the risk of developing asthma,” says James Gern, the principal investigator of URECA and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in a statement. “Additional research may help us identify specific targets for asthma prevention strategies.”

Asthma aside, a 2016 study from Tufts also showed that pet ownership may boost kids’ confidence and social skills—so fetching a furry friend for your brood may have more benefits than you realize.


Jamie Ducharme Jamie Ducharme, Contributor jducharme@bostonmagazine.com