The combination of kids and pets can be a truly delightful experience, as well as an educational one in terms of teaching children responsibility and other core values such as nurturing and empathy. But for those with little ones who are allergy-prone, it may be a recipe for disaster.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), at least 15 percent of Americans who have allergies are allergic to pets, and adults who fall into this group are also more likely to have children with similar conditions. AAFA figures show that as many as 7 out of 10 children will develop pet allergies if both parents are affected. However, it's also entirely possible for children to develop allergies when both parents are allergy-free.
It's unclear whether there's any surefire way to prevent your kids from getting pet allergies. Some studies, including one conducted in 2002 by the Journal of the American Medical Association, indicate that exposing children to pets during their first year of life might in fact help prevent the development of allergies down the road, but experts in the field have yet to agree on whether these studies are valid in all cases.
Signs of a potential pet allergy in children are similar to those seen in adults, which can include runny nose, sneezing, red or watery eyes, itching, and in more severe cases, rashes, hives, and even the development of full-blown asthma. There are, however, other allergens -- such as mold -- that can create similar symptoms. So how can you tell if pets are the cause? First things first: Consider whether your children have ever been exposed to animals, and if so, have they exhibited any subsequent reactions? Symptoms of a pet allergy usually show up within 30 minutes or so after contact, but sometimes can take as long as 8 to 12 hours to surface. To be safe, give it a full day after the initial interaction takes place before jumping to any conclusions.
For a more concrete verdict, a doctor or allergist can help determine the source of the irritant by conducting a detailed review of your child's medical history and a complete physical examination. A skin or blood test is also good for measuring a child's level of immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies as it relates to specific allergens. Generally, skin tests are preferable, because they deliver faster and more specific results than blood tests.
If a pet allergen does indeed prove to be the culprit behind your child's symptoms, the best (and sometimes hardest) decision would be to prevent contact with anything that acts as a trigger for the allergies. This includes keeping certain pets out of your own household and also limiting interactions with other people's animals as much as possible -- both of which can be heartbreaking situations for youngsters. When explaining the circumstances, try reminding your kids how important it is for them to remain healthy. Don't hesitate to ask your pediatrician for advice on how to best approach this discussion as well.
If your children are allergy-prone, but their symptoms are relatively mild, you may decide to move forward with getting a pet anyway. If this is the case, keep in mind that the source of the allergen is in the animal's saliva or skin secretions -- not within hair or fur as a lot of people believe. While many dog and cat breeds are marketed as hypoallergenic, there is really no such thing as a 100 percent allergy-friendly pet, so choosing one labeled as such will not necessarily do you or your family any favors.
That said, there are more allergy-friendly alternatives. Though cats and dogs are popular pet options, consider other types of animals that don't shed dander, such as fish, reptiles and turtles. If you do opt for a kitty or puppy, look into breeds that shed less frequently (like Bichon Frises) or have shorter fur (like the Devon Rex cat). That should help cut down on the amount of dander in the household.
Other helpful measures include making your children's bedrooms pet-free zones and keeping your pet outdoors whenever possible. Vacuum and dust frequently, and speak to your doctor about other treatment options as well, such as antihistamines (in the form of pills or nose sprays) or even shots. Taking medication might seem extreme, but it's important to explore all options to avoid unpleasant situations down the road for your kids, yourself and your pet.