Asthma is a chronic inflammatory lung disease affecting more than 4 million Canadians, which in its worst form, can make it very difficult for people to breathe, presenting a wide range of symptoms across those who are afflicted.
Some people who suffer from asthma can have certain triggers that yield an intense inflammatory response. These can be things like smoke, pollen, and pet dander. Cats, as a result of being one of the two most common fur-clad house pets, are often seen as a major risk for those living with asthma.
Asthma affects people of all ages, but it’s especially top of mind for young/expecting parents. Many worry about their child developing the disease and there are plenty of materials online suggesting things like tobacco smoke or frequent exposure to pets as risks. Interestingly, the real data suggests that in the case of exposure to a pet, it can have the opposite effect!
Can Cats Prevent Asthma?
While it may be true that cat dander can trigger symptoms in some people who already live with asthma, it can also help prevent it from developing in young children. There are plenty of studies that have been done on the relationship between cat dander and asthma, and one by the National Institute of Environmental Studies in Japan had some incredible results.
They surveyed 4317 people, 2030 cat/dog owners, and 2287 pet-free households. The study looked at the effects of pets in the household on the likelihood that children would develop asthma or allergies.
In homes with pets, children were half as likely to develop the disease. That means exposure to a cat or dog from a young age had a positive outcome on the children’s resilience to asthma or pet allergies.
Another study from Sweden, completed by the University of Gothenburg, involved 1020 children, aged 7 to 8, who were assessed for allergies and asthma. The results were essentially the same as the study from Japan. Children living with pets had a much lower chance of developing asthma, pet allergies, and even a broad range of other environmental allergies.
Another interesting thread discovered in this study is the fact that the more dogs or cats a child is exposed to, the lower the likelihood they will suffer from asthma or allergies. So, the volume of exposure even played a role.
The Hygiene Hypothesis
One of the leading theories behind these findings is the hygiene hypothesis, which concludes that the more bacteria, dust, dirt and other things a young person is exposed to, the better their immune system will develop. This may be true, but at this time we are not 100% sure why exposure to a pet can build a tolerance in a young person, but it does!
As we can see, the relationship between cats and asthma is an interesting one. On one hand, exposure to a cat can cause a serious, life-threatening reaction in a person with serious symptoms. On the other hand, exposure to a young child can help reduce the chances they will ever have issues with asthma at all.
Just with everything that can possibly cause risk to a young child, talk to their doctor before bringing a pet into the home. You want to be absolutely sure everyone will be safe and happy living together.
The Hervey Foundation for Cats is a cat rescue located in Alberta, Canada.