Living with pets reduces future allergies in children

Q: We have several cats and we provide foster care for kittens from a rescue organization. I am pregnant with my first child and we do not want our child to grow up allergic to cats. While our child is young, should we stop fostering and limit access to our family cats?

A: Rather the opposite. For years, doctors have recognized that allergies are rare in children growing up on farms.

More recent studies have shown that pets inside the home protect children from allergies, and the protection increases with the number of pets.

One study followed nearly 1,300 children aged 6 months to 8 to 9 years old. Researchers noted the number of cats and dogs in the house and tracked children’s allergy symptoms, including asthma, eczema, and allergic rhinoconjunctivitis, a cause of sneezing, runny nose, and itchy eyes.

Almost half of children without pets developed allergies. Far fewer children who lived with pets from a young age suffered from allergies growing up.

Having more pets in the home was associated with a lower incidence of allergies. Children who lived with five or more pets were generally free from allergies.

Oddly enough, these children were protected from allergies to animals and pollen, suggesting that the children’s immune systems learned to tolerate the allergens from the animals themselves and the pollens they carried on their fur.

Thus, allowing your child to interact with the cats of the family and the foster kittens will be like a vaccination which protects against allergies.

Q: Katie, my cocker spaniel, has wide eyes. Her vet diagnosed her with dry eye and prescribed eye ointment. If her eyes are dry, why is there so much thick mud coming out of her eyes? Please explain the dry eye.

A: Dry eye, officially called KCS or keratoconjunctivitis sicca, is dryness (sicca) of the clear surface of the eye, called the cornea (kerato-) and conjunctiva, with subsequent inflammation (-itis).

Katie’s eyes are clearing the goop you describe because her tear glands are no longer producing enough of the watery portion of her tears to balance the mucus and fat components of the tears.

Clinical signs include thick discharge from the eye; redness and swelling of the conjunctiva; a dry and lackluster cornea; and red blood vessels or dark pigmentation on the cornea. KCS causes pain, so most affected dogs will squint.

The disease has many causes, including genetic predisposition in some breeds, destruction of the tear glands by the immune system, damage to the nerves controlling the tear glands, hypothyroidism, diabetes, Cushing’s disease, surgical removal of the tear gland of the third eyelid, certain viral infections and certain medications.

The most common treatment is eye drops or ointments that increase tear production, such as cyclosporine or tacrolimus. These drugs minimize pain and manage the disease well, but do not cure it, so lifelong therapy is required. Dogs with eye infections secondary to KCS also need antibiotic eye drops or ointment until the infection clears.

In rare cases where these drugs are not effective, surgical treatment is helpful.

Without adequate therapy, the pain of KCS persists and many dogs lose their vision. So, if Katie’s eyes don’t return to normal and stay that way, ask your vet to recheck her eyes or refer you to a veterinary ophthalmologist.

Lee Pickett, VMD, practices pet medicine in North Carolina. Contact her at

[email protected]

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