Background: Controversial data have emerged regarding the question whether cat exposure in childhood favours or decreases the risk of sensitization and allergic airway disease. In a prospective birth-cohort study, we assessed the association between longitudinal cat allergen exposure, sensitization (immunoglobulin E, IgE), IgG antibody (ab) levels to cat and the development of asthma in children up to the age of 10 years.
Methods: Of 1314 newborn infants enrolled in five German cities in 1990, follow-up data at age 10 years were available for 750 children. Assessments included yearly measurements of specific serum IgE to cat and at age 6 and 18 months, 3, 4 and 10 years measurement of cat allergen Fel d 1 in house dust samples. Additionally, Fel d 1-specific IgG ab were determined in 378 serum samples of 207 children. Endotoxin exposure in mattress dust was measured in a subgroup of 153 children at age 10 years. From age 4 years on, International Study of Asthma and Allergy in Childhood (ISAAC) questionnaires were completed yearly in order to assess the prevalence of wheeze and asthma.
Results: Serum IgG-levels to cat showed a large variation, however, intraindividually values showed rather constant concentration over a longer time period. The IgG levels at school-age correlated with cat allergen exposure during the first 2 years of life. Specific IgE to cat was clearly associated with wheeze ever, current wheeze and bronchial hyperresponsiveness (BHR), this was also observed for children with specific IgE ab to cat (>0.35 kU/l) plus IgG levels above 125 U/ml. A large percentage of very highly exposed children showed high IgG but no IgE responses to cat, however, not all highly exposed children were found to be protected from sensitization. Children with IgG but without IgE ab to cat showed the lowest prevalence of wheeze ever and current wheeze despite high cat allergen exposure, however, this trend did not achieve significance. While homes of cat owners showed higher Fel d 1 concentrations than homes without cats, homes of cat owners were not found to have higher endotoxin levels in carpet dust samples than homes without cats.
Conclusions: We could confirm that high cat allergen exposure in a cohort with lower community prevalence of cats is associated with higher serum IgG and IgE levels to cat in schoolchildren. Sensitization to cat allergen (IgE) is a risk factor for childhood asthma. While exposure to cat allergen during infancy is associated with sensitization (IgE), only in the very highly exposed children the likelihood of sensitization (IgE) is decreased and high IgG levels to cat without IgE were associated with low risk of wheeze. However, cat-specific IgG ab levels did not protect children with IgE-mediated sensitization from wheeze.