If you have a child with allergies, you might hesitate to bring a pet into the home. While you'll need to take a few things into account, and while a child with severe allergies should probably be medicated, there's no need to avoid getting a pet just because your child is prone to mild allergies. "There are a couple of ways of finding out what your child may be allergic to," says Dr. Jonathan Spergel, chief of the Allergy Section at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "One way is to go to an allergist and get allergy testing." Allergy testing can determine what substances might trigger an allergic response in your child, and it will rule out additional allergies to a pet's diet or bedding. "I've seen people not realize, until they are around a pet, that they have an allergy, which then leads to re-homing the animal," says Dr. Jennifer Graham, an assistant professor at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Finding another home for your pet would be sad for both the family and the animal, so always get tested for allergies in order to make an informed decision about what type of pet to have. Here are the best pets for families to consider, along with advice on how to accommodate a child with allergies.
Some people can be more sensitive to certain breeds than others, but despite prevalent theories, there is no such thing as a 100 percent non-allergenic dog or cat, says Dr. Spergel. Allergy testing will tell you if you are allergic to dogs or cats, but it will not identify individual breeds that cause the reaction. Whether or not your child is already mildly allergic to these mammals, it will take some trial and error to determine which non-allergenic breed is best for your home and will cause the least severe allergic reaction. Shorthaired dogs or hairless cats are not necessarily better options. An allergic reaction is caused by proteins in animal dander (old skin cells that are shed) and saliva, both of which will still be present in breeds with little to no hair.
In addition to allergy testing, you can visit family members, friends, or neighbors who have a dog or cat breed you are considering. Speak with the pediatrician first before exposing your child to an animal, and ask what medication you should have on hand in case he has an allergic reaction, Dr. Spergel suggests. If you have asthma or allergies to a mammal, being exposed can make you cough, wheeze, or have significant swellings. If the child's asthma is well controlled, let him interact with the pet briefly to see if he develops an allergic reaction. Before doing so, though, talk to your pediatrician or allergist to make sure if it's safe for the child. It will take more than two minutes for your child to be sufficiently exposed, so keep a close eye on him as he plays with the animal. Your child should visit the same breed multiple times for one hour or more to see if an allergic reaction develops. Even if he doesn't show signs of an allergic reaction, the short exposure may not rule out an allergy completely, so it can still be a good way to determine any problems. (If your child's asthma or allergies are uncontrolled, do not expose him to contact with an animal.)
While a child may not be allergic to the animal itself, you should still exercise caution if your child is allergic to pollen, Dr. Spergel warns. An animal that has been outdoors can track pollen into the home and spread it everywhere. If you do decide to get a cat or dog, you'll need to be more vigilant about cleaning after your pet. Invest in a vacuum with a high-efficiency particulate-air (HEPA) filter to effectively trap pollen as well as pet dander, and frequently wash and vacuum any rugs or furniture that come in contact with your pet. Even if you have hardwood floors, make sure to clean them often. Dusting daily and purchasing an air purifier with a HEPA filter will also eradicate any pollen that your pet may bring into your home.
Smaller pets have an advantage over their larger counterparts when it comes to affordability and the amount of space they take up in your home. If you're considering a smaller pet for your child, however, it's still important to assess whether she has an allergy to the animal's fur, food items (hay), or bedding (pine or cedar). Be extra careful if you're considering rabbits and guinea pigs. "More kids seem allergic to the fur of rabbits and guinea pigs than to smaller rodents," says Dr. Katherine Quesenberry, an exotic-pets expert at New York City's Animal Medical Center. The reaction is possibly more severe because rabbits and guinea pigs are larger than other small pets and shed more, increasing the amount of allergen kids are exposed to. Safer pet options might be a smaller animal such as a hamster, gerbil, or rat. However, some people can develop allergies to any pet rodent over time.
If you're considering a feathered friend, note that birds also shed dander and can cause allergies similar to those caused by mammals. Smaller birds may shed less dander and cause fewer reactions, but parents should still get kids tested for allergies before investing in one. Or try this unique alternative: a hedgehog. "One advantage of the hedgehog is that kids with allergies are typically not as irritated by them," says Dr. Graham. Since hedgehogs have quills, they shed less dander and veterinarians tend to see fewer allergic reactions to them as a result. But parents should learn about local and state laws before buying a hedgehog, because it's illegal to own them in certain states.
While fish are not as hands-on as other animals, they make the best pets for a kid with allergies. "Since they are in water and there is no direct or airborne contact, allergies should not be an issue," Dr. Quesenberry says. Parents should nonetheless keep children from handling fish and sticking their hands in the water. Aquatic environments can contain bacteria that can lead to an infection, Dr. Graham cautions. If your child has a cut or scratch on the skin, contact with fish can lead to fish-handler's disease, where a red circle develops around the infected area and causes itchiness and burning. Careful handwashing can reduce the risk of exposure.
If you and your partner don't mind having a scaly animal in the house, reptiles can be a good option for kids with allergies. Because they lack fur, snakes, turtles, geckos, and bearded dragons have a distinct advantage over their furry counterparts. While these animals tend to shed their skin, they lack the proteins that cause allergic reactions, Dr. Quesenberry says. One concern with reptiles, though, is exposure to salmonella. Most pet reptiles that are well maintained are healthy, but some reptiles can carry salmonella as part of their normal intestinal bacteria, and it can be harmful if it's transferred to humans. "Salmonella can cause severe intestinal inflammation and diarrhea in people," Dr. Quesenberry says. "It is most commonly reported in people with underdeveloped or compromised immune systems, such as in young children or the elderly." The symptoms can be similar to a stomach virus, so if you're worried, tell the physician that you own a reptile. Kids with allergies won't be more vulnerable to salmonella than anyone else will be, but keep in mind that reptiles would be best for older kids with allergies who understand the importance of washing their hands after handling the reptile.
So if your child really wants a pet, seek out creative solutions that will keep your whole family healthy while providing a good home for the animal. Dr. Graham knows plenty of families that make it work: They reduce the child's contact with the pet by keeping animals in separate rooms of the house, emphasizing strict handwashing, or having other family members do the majority of animal care. Whatever you decide, having a child with allergies doesn't mean you should rule out getting a pet.
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