Discover whether owning a pet can reduce your child’s chances of developing allergies

Adopting my three rescue cats is both the best and worst decision I’ve ever made. Having grown up around household pets it finally hit me that I was missing that extra bit of love when I came home from work. However, at the time I wasn’t dating someone allergic to them—now I am. By contrast he did not grow up in a pet-friendly family, and one morning while he wanted to scratch his eyes out and my fur babies were trying to jump on his lap I asked Google what I could do to ease the reaction. As often happens when trying to self-diagnose, I went down a rabbit-hole and was introduced to the polarizing “hygiene hypothesis.” Essentially, Dr. David Strachan identified a correlation between the rise of asthma and hay fever in the late 20th century with “reduced microbial exposure” during infancy. Later studies expanded the theory to cover even more chronic inflammatory diseases, for example, growing up around animals is just one way to introduce the nubile immune system to a slew of microbes and enhance its potential. While the light bulb over my head lit up, I have before been led astray with online diagnoses. So, I turned to a more authoritative source, Dr. Jeremy Ostrander, family medicine practitioner at Columbia Asia.

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“Eat dirty, live long…” is a paraphrased statement here in Vietnam, and a seemingly local-ism to the hygiene hypothesis. However, Dr. Ostrander isn’t overwhelmingly satisfied by either of the two phrases. “While I appreciate the moniker of the ‘hygiene hypothesis,’ it kind of makes hygiene a bad word. In reality, the practice of good hygiene/sanitation has been one of the most important steps that medicine has introduced to public health,” he states.

There has been a compulsive move toward over sterilizing everything, from our hands to countertops and doorknobs with such verve that it’s lead to us leading an over-zealous lifestyle in terms of cleanliness (think The Boy in the Plastic Bubble movie). And, while we shouldn’t ever abandon healthy and hygienic practices, we may have gone a little overboard as of late, verified by studies that have shown a dramatic increase in chronic inflammatory cases like asthma and allergies. We’re constantly bombarded with scary words like “salmonella,” “legionella,” and “lurking bacteria,” that should be taken seriously, but some of which we already come into baseline contact during our daily lives.

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Dr. Ostrander confirmed that he understood and generally agreed with two noted studies, each that confirmed exposure to dogs in infancy—especially around the time of birth—can actually influence children’s immune development and reduce the likelihood of certain allergic diseases. “There are generally lower cases of asthma in rural versus urban areas, and this can also be traced back to contact with animals, historically farm animals, as well as big families and even diversity in diets. Breast feeding also plays an important role in early immunity development,” continues Dr. Ostrander. Why? Simply put, because in order to build immunity you need to first be exposed to pathogens. However, it seems that owning pets is a small portion of this development. “It’s kind of like looking at the spit in the bucket compared to the barrage of microbes they are exposed to throughout their lives. A child can still potentially be exposed to the same pathogens one will encounter on a cat or dog through other means, but I would not dismiss the health benefits of growing up with animals.”

A Few Stray Hairs

“Honey, the cat puked again!” my boyfriend bellows from the bedroom, fulfilling the weekly quota. While there are plenty of daily gross-outs with our beloved furry friends, there is a toxic misperception in Vietnam—and most developing countries for that matter—that domesticated animals are dirty and unapproachable. And when I say “dirty,” I don’t mean the literal sense that those found on the streets generally are. Many people believe they carry disease or—and in some religious texts— are “unclean” at a more base level of their being; a much harder idea to dissuade than just giving a stray dog a bath.

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“I hear that in Vietnam many people are put off pet ownership as they believe the hair makes their children sick—and also is the driving factor behind many animals being abandoned,” says Dr. William Thomas, CEO of Animal Doctors International in D2. This thought isn’t relegated to only locals, and often expats are unsure of what to do with the family pet when they become pregnant. “Unfortunately, abandonment of family pets is all too common, and we often hear people expressing their concern over allergies as a prominent reason,” Dr. Thomas adds. It is never appropriate to abandon your pet, but I can understand there is a general ignorance around the topic. If only these families would first review the November 2015 study from Uppsala University in Sweden.

Funded by the Swedish Research Council, Stockholm County Council, the Strategic Research Program in Epidemiology at Karolinska Institutet, and the Swedish Heart Lung Foundation, the study found “exposure to dogs reduced the risk of both preschool (by 10 percent) and school-age children having asthma by 13 percent. And living on a farm as a child—not just visiting one—also appeared to reduce asthma risk by an estimated 31 percent for preschool children and 52 percent for school-age children.” When I reviewed this with Dr. Ostrander he was quick to remind that it’s difficult to conduct these studies in controlled environments, but that he agreed the first “three to six months are the most beneficial to the body’s immune system.”

The human body can handle an amazing amount of influx. Much like when babies are given multiple immunizations at the same time, the developing immune system is capable of handling a barrage of every day microbes. It almost needs it in order to perform optimally. I’m not telling you to let your children give sloppy kisses to your family pet, but if they happen to do so everything should work out just fine. If you’re happy to go one step further, then be part of the global movement to save animals from a harsh life on the streets. Adopt or foster today.

IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN