Pets Cut Allergy Risk But Why

A study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, September 2006 found that pet owners had a lower risk of allergies.

The question is why.

According to the study and a subsequent report in Reuters, "growing up with a pet trains the immune system to be less reactive to potential allergy triggers.... On one hand, this could indicate a protective effect of pets on immune system development. But an alternative explanation is that families with a genetic tendency toward allergies often opt for a pet-free home, whereas those with an inherently lower risk are more likely to keep pets....The researchers found that when people developed allergies or asthma as babies or pre-schoolers, their families were less likely than others to get a cat or keep a cat they already had. However, this was not true of families where a parent had allergies or asthma. And while people with both current and childhood asthma were less likely to have a cat in adulthood, childhood symptoms alone did not prevent adults from getting a pet."

The truth is that pets -- if you like them -- can have a healing effect. I wouldn't attribute this solely to a "placebo effect." There is in fact extensive literature on the benefits of pet therapy. Perhaps the answer with regard to allergies has more to do with the subtle exchanges occuring in a deep communion between humans and their four-legged counterparts, or perhaps simply friendship. Just as relaxation can lower blood pressure, similarly, feelings of abundance, peace, or simply good communication can induce positive biochemical changes. This explanation makes more intuitive sense than simply attributing allergy protection to self-selection. We can always reduce matters to their most Darwinian basics, but there is a core of mystery -- which is really simple after all -- for which there is also very likely a common-sense and plausible scientific explanation.