Over the last three decades, worldwide incidence and prevalence of eczema have increased dramatically. It is estimated that 15 to 30% of children and 2 to 10% of adults have eczema around the world. Much of the scientific studies have been focused on genetic mutations associated with eczema. There is also an increasing awareness that environment, such as pollution, smoking, and ambient air, can contribute to the development of eczema.
Can pets increase or decrease a person’s risk for developing eczema?
In 2011, a study published in Journal of Pediatrics answered this exact question. A group of physicians and scientists followed a group of 636 infants whose parents had eczema. The infants were followed starting at 1 year of age, and they had annual clinical exam plus skin prick tests to 15 allergens, milk and eggs. At age of 4 years, 90 children developed eczema.
When the investigators looked deeper into these kids histories, a few interesting trends emerged.
First, children who had positive prick tests to eggs at 1 year old had a significantly higher risk for developing eczema at age 4.
Second, when they looked at the history of pet ownership, the investigators found that owning a dog at an early age actually provided a significant protective effect against eczema. Children who had dogs had at least four times less risk in developing eczema than children without dongs.
In contrast, cat ownership increased the risk for eczema among cat-sensitized children. For some of the children who owned cats, they were 13 times more likely to develop eczema then those children who do not own cats.
Bottom line, eczema is a very complex disease involving interaction of environment and genetics. While the role of food has received much attention, the association between allergens in the air and surrounding environment should also be considered and studied. It is not clear why having a dog as a pet offered a protective benefit and having a cat increased the risk of developing eczema. Obviously, more studies are needed to explain this trend. Until then, dog lovers have one more reason to love man’s best friend.
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