When a child starts pleading for a cat or dog, many parents are happy to welcome a family pet.
But when the child has allergies, the decision gets tougher. The health needs of the child must be considered before the benefits of nurturing an animal. It’s possible to have both.
Pet allergies are fairly common. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, about one in five Americans suffer from some type of allergy, and about one quarter of those are allergic to animals. Allergies are the third most common chronic disease in children under 18 years of age.
Wheezing, sneezing, coughing, breathlessness and other symptoms are caused by a protein in the pet’s saliva, urine and dander. The official position by organized medicine is to avoid all animals. Allergies can be life threatening and no remedy exists.
“People love animals and I’m an animal lover, but sometimes it’s in the best interest of people not to have animals in the house,” says Dr. Michael Foggs, chief of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology for Advocate Health Centers and a board member for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Foggs consulted with the White House in the selection of the First Dog, a Portuguese Water Dog named Bo—carefully chosen, because Malia Obama has allergies.
If you’re determined to have a pet, be wary of hypoallergenic claims. Mildly sensitive children might tolerate certain breeds, such as poodles and hairless cats, but maybe not.
When only a furry creature will do, Foggs prefers guinea pigs, gerbils and hamsters. Children tend to handle them less because they live in cages. Rabbits, however, produce a potent protein.
“Fish don’t offer the same emotional connection, but children are mesmerized by an aquarium, especially when there are multiple kinds of tropical fish,” he says.
Dr. Tim Harris, a veterinarian with the Animal Care and Medical Center in Libertyville, finds that many allergy-prone families adopt reptiles such as bearded dragons, tortoises and snakes.
“Sometimes birds, but you have to be careful,” he says. “They can cause allergies, too.”
“People don’t realize that all pets have their own personalities,” he says. “Even snakes and fish recognize their owners and like to be hand-fed.”
Sometimes the bond formed with exotic species is stronger because people do more research before choosing one, he says.
“People have a need for pets in their lives,” he says. “If they can’t have one thing, maybe there is something else. There’s a pet for everybody.”