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Pets are unfortunately a common source of allergy and asthma reactions in small children. No family wants to be forced to choose between a beloved pet and their infant's ability to breathe comfortably, but sometimes parents must face this choice. While wheezing in a baby doesn't always mean he has asthma, wheezing that develops in conjunction with allergies is most likely to later develop into asthma. However, having a dog in the house might, in some cases, have a protective effect against asthma in a child under 1 year.
Asthma in Infants
It's not possible to accurately diagnose asthma in infants, a Michigan State University College of Human Medicine study published in the March 2011 issue of "The Journal of Family Medicine" reports. Around 50 percent of children have wheezing before they reach school age, but only 33 percent have wheezing in later childhood and early adulthood. Not all wheezing is asthma; wheezing in babies can be transient, stopping in early childhood, or progress to IgE-mediated atopic, or allergic wheezing, or asthma. Symptoms of asthma include rapid breathing, wheezing, lack of energy or difficulty eating. Very rapid breathing, a blue tinge to your baby's face, lips or fingernails, or nasal flaring require immediate medical attention.
An intriguing study presented at the 2005 American Academy of Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology in San Antonio found that babies who spent their first year in a home with a dog were less likely to experience wheezing episodes than children who lived in a house without a dog. Specifically, 26 percent of infants who lived in homes without a dog had two or more wheezing episodes per year compared with 18 percent of those who lived with a dog. This was true even though homes with dogs had the highest levels of endotoxins, part of the bacteria that can trigger asthma.
Babies often wheeze from causes other than asthma. Your baby's airway is small and a virus, severe cold or other infection can cause the tissues to swell. When his airway narrows, he wheezes. This doesn't necessarily mean he has asthma or will develop it at a later age. Infantile asthma affects children under age 3 who have had four or more wheezing episodes that respond to treatment with bronchodilators or anti-inflammatory medications. Younger children with asthma have more disease than older children; asthmatic children under age 2 are four times as likely to be hospitalized with an asthma attack than teenagers with asthma.
Allergies and asthma often go together. If your baby has an allergy to your pet, he can develop asthma symptoms as part of an allergic reaction. As many as 35 to 40 percent of children under age 3 who had wheezing had positive skin reactions to dust mites, cats or cockroaches, indicating an allergy, according to The Asthma Center. While you might think of pets primarily as dogs, cats or birds, small animals such as rabbits, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, rats and mice can also produce dander that leads to allergy symptoms and asthma.
Steps to Prevent Asthma Attacks When You Have Pets
Sometimes asthma symptoms can be controlled if you keep your pet out of your child's bedroom or keep the pet outside. Keeping a pet off furniture could also help. Vacuum when your baby isn't around and vacuum at least once a week. Installing hardwood floors rather than carpet can make pet hair or dander easier to remove. If your child has an allergy to pets that culminates in asthma attacks, finding another home for your pet might be the best prevention. Removing all traces of pet dander or fur requires thorough cleaning, including cleaning all upholstered furniture, rugs and drapery.
Suzanne Robin is a registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology. She also has extensive experience working in home health with developmentally delayed or medically fragile children. Robin received her RN degree from Western Oklahoma State College. She has coauthored and edited numerous books for the Wiley "Dummies" series.