Background Studies have suggested that early contact with pets may prevent the development of allergy and asthma.
Objective To study the association between early, current and past pet ownership and sensitization, bronchial responsiveness and allergic symptoms in school children.
Methods A population of almost 3000 primary school children was investigated using protocols of the International Study on Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC). Allergic symptoms were measured using the parent-completed ISAAC questionnaire. Sensitization to common allergens was measured using skin prick tests (SPT)s and/or serum immunoglobulin (Ig)E determinations. Bronchial responsiveness was tested using a hypertonic saline challenge. Pet ownership was investigated by questionnaire. Current, past and early exposure to pets was documented separately for cats, dogs, rodents and birds. The data on current, past and early pet exposure were then related to allergic symptoms, sensitization and bronchial responsiveness.
Results Among children currently exposed to pets, there was significantly less sensitization to cat (odds ratio (OR) = 0.69) and dog (OR = 0.63) allergens, indoor allergens in general (OR = 0.64), and outdoor allergens (OR = 0.60) compared to children who never had pets in the home. There was also less hayfever (OR = 0.66) and rhinitis (OR = 0.76). In contrast, wheeze, asthma and bronchial responsiveness were not associated with current pet ownership. Odds ratios associated with past pet ownership were generally above unity, and significant for asthma in the adjusted analysis (OR = 1.85), suggesting selective avoidance in families with sensitized and/or symptomatic children. Pet ownership in the first two years of life only showed an inverse association with sensitization to pollen: OR = 0.71 for having had furry or feathery pets in general in the first two years of life, and OR = 0.73 for having had cats and/or dogs in the first two years of life, compared to not having had pets in the first two years of life.
Conclusion These results suggest that the inverse association between current pet ownership and sensitization and hayfever symptoms was partly due to the removal of pets in families with sensitized and/or symptomatic children. Pet ownership in the first two years of life only seemed to offer some protection against sensitization to pollen.