Cats: early exposure wards off asthma

By Carrie Johnson Weimar • Published: October 8th, 2008
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

From Garfield to Morris, Sylvester to Felix, we love our cats. But for those with an allergy to pet dander, cuddling up to little Snowball or Fluffy means itchy eyes and a runny nose. Exposure to cats can be especially problematic for asthma sufferers. But now new research is showing that children who are exposed to felines at an early age may actually be less likely to develop asthma.

The research may seem illogical to anyone who has spent the afternoon wheezing after petting a kitty. But allergy researchers from Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health found that allergen exposure over a long period of time at a young age can actually shield against asthma symptoms.

Researchers studied a group of children living in New York City. They tested allergen levels in the homes and evaluated each child’s allergy and asthma history. By age five, children who grew up around high levels of cat allergens were far less likely to show symptoms of asthma.

Why? Researchers aren’t exactly sure. Some theorize it’s akin to the so-called hygiene hypothesis, which suggests that exposure to bacteria and viral agents is actually beneficial because it allows the immune system to build up resistance.

Not so fast, parents. Buying a cat won’t necessarily help your kids if they haven’t been exposed since birth. And if your child already has asthma, a cat may make things worse. But for those who are expecting children, well, a little feline companionship never hurt anyone. Just ask Garfield.