Cats Protecting Against Asthma

9. January 2018
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Contact with cats in early childhood reduces the risk of asthma by up to 80 percent for children carrying a genetically increased risk, according to the result of a Danish long-term study. Living with a dog did not have a positive effect in this context.

Bronchial asthma ranks among the most common chronic diseases in childhood. The causes of this chronic respiratory disease have still not as yet been fully studied. It has been proven, however, that both genetic factors and environmental influences are crucial in early childhood as to whether an asthma condition develops or not. Danish physicians have now examined the influence of pets as an environmental factor on children’s asthma risk.

Chromosome section 17q21 in focus

The study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology is based on data from 377 children whose mothers already suffered from asthma. A genetic test showed a genetically increased risk of asthma in 109 of the examined children. Attention was directed to an alteration in the chromosome section 17q21, which is associated with a high probability of asthma in the first year of life.
Of the 377 children involved in the study, 281 grew up without a pet. All others had contact with cats, dogs or both species during development.
In order to classify the intensity of the contact with the pet, the physicians also took dust samples from their cots and determined therefrom the amounts of animal allergens to which the child was exposed. The children were regularly examined at intervals of six months during the study, from their first month of life up until their seventh year. Subsequent to this, the children were further observed until the age of 12.

Cat allergens in bedding protective to children

In total, bronchial asthma was identified in 85 children during the study. What was striking: the children who grew up with a pet were up to 80% less likely to be at risk than the other children. With high levels of the cat allergens in children’s bedding, the asthma risk was only about 20 percent, whereas this risk was significantly higher at lesser allergen levels – sometimes twice as high. When looking at the children without the genetic characteristic for increased risk of asthma, no association between disease and the presence of pets could be found.
What’s more, the likelihood of lung disease, such as bronchiolitis or the onset of asthmatic symptoms in the first three years of life of a child’s life, was lower at higher allergen levels. In the children without the genetic characteristic for increased risk of asthma, no correlation between disease and the presence of pets was found. Looking at cohabitation with dogs, the scientists likewise found no association in this context.

New points of contact

The findings suggest that living with furry felines acts as a protective mechanism for children who have a genetically increased risk of asthma disease.
In scientific terms it is not yet clear exactly how this mechanism works in detail. An obvious assumption is that cat allergens affect the immune system so that it is capable of better defence against lung infections and protection against asthmatic diseases.
Based on these results, therapy with pure cat allergen would be conceivable in the near future, as is already the case in the field of hyposensitisation for the reduction of animal hair allergies. A prerequisite for this is that further studies would have to elucidate the exact functional mechanism of animal allergens in the immune system of a baby.

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