Asthmatic Mothers Beware

Should Fluffy go bye-bye? Maybe.

If Mom has asthma, then a cat in the home actually triples the risk that her child will develop persistent wheezing–an initial indicator of asthma – by age 5. So says a recent study by the medical journal The Lancet.

Yet, the same study, sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, found allergy-prone children were 40 percent less likely of developing the disease if a cat was in the home during the child’s early life and Mom did not have asthma.

“For most kids, exposure to a pet is good. But there are two exceptions: if the mother is allergic or if she has asthma.” says The Lancet study’s author Juan C. Celedon, M.D., at Harvard Medical School’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

If children actually do benefit from early-life pet exposure, then it would have to be in the first year when the immune system is still maturing, says Clifford Bassett, M.D., FAAAAI, an allergist with New York University Medical Center in New York. After that small window, a family may have a hard time introducing a pet into a home where a child is at risk for developing allergies.

What specifically causes asthma is still uncertain, but studies show if one parent has an allergic disease, the risk that their child may develop allergies is 48 percent. That risk increases to 70 percent if both parents have allergies.

Yet a separate study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found having two or more pets lessened the chances that a child develops allergies.

Almost 70 percent of homes have at least one or more pets. Some 50 million cats and 50 million dogs are in Americans’ homes. Ten million pet owners are allergic to cats and dogs.

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder involving constriction of the muscles lining the bronchial airways. Symptoms include coughing, wheezing, tightness of the chest and shortness of breath. Asthmatic lungs are often referred to as “twitchy” meaning they overreact to allergens that are harmless to most other people. Although asthma cannot be cured, there are treatments to control symptoms. Certain allergens such as pollens, molds, animal dander, dust mites and cockroaches can be triggers for attacks.

Asthma is becoming increasingly more common. More than 17 million people are affected with potentially life-threatening asthma in 1998, compared with 7 million in 1980: a 158 percent increase. That includes nearly 5 million children and teens. About 5,000 deaths occur each year because of asthma, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. Working parents of children with the disease lost an estimated $1 billion a year in productivity.

Does Fluffy get the boot?

But parting with Fluffy is tough, Bassett says.

“I’ve never seen someone get rid of their cat. They come for a shot or medication, get a new doctor, but they don’t get rid of the cat for some reason. The dog usually gets kicked out the door but not the cat,” Bassett says. “People seem to have less of an attachment with their dogs.”

But no matter what the research is saying, experts urge parents to err on the side of caution with pets in the home. Studies show a child with one parent with allergies has a 25 percent chance of developing problems and someone with both parents afflicted has a 50 percent to 75 percent chance.

“Individuals who have pet allergies and asthma should continue avoidance measures especially if they have symptoms that are worsened upon exposure,” Bassett says.

Here are some tips from Bassett on what you can do to cope with your allergies around pets.

  • Keeping pets outside the bedroom can reduce unnecessary suffering since people spend about a third of each day in this room.
  • Because pet dander is buoyant and floats freely, you can use electrostatic or HEPA air cleaners to remove unwanted allergenic particles, especially cat dander. It may take six months after the pet has been removed to completely rid the home of cat dander.
  • Avoid hugging or kissing pets.
  • Don’t let allergy sufferers handle litter boxes and place the boxes away from areas of air filtration intake vents in homes with central heating and air-conditioning.
  • Wash hands after handling or touching a pet to help avoid spreading the dander.
  • Consider placing plastic covers on the couch or other upholstered furniture, which may harbor pet allergens where the pet sleeps or rest
  • Wash your pet weekly.
  • A non-allergic person should brush the pet regularly and outside of the home.