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After weeks, months or even years of your child pleading, you finally give in. She can have a pet, but because she suffers from asthma it can't be any pet. As soon as the words come out of your mouth, you visualize midnight trips to the emergency department, ventilators and antihistamines. But you’ve been worn down, and so the search begins for the perfect pet for your asthmatic child.
If you have an asthmatic child, you know what an asthma attack looks like from the outside. On the inside, the allergen -- whose source can be a plethora of things -- causes the lining of the airways of your child’s lungs to swell and narrow. The result is less air in the lungs. You may hear wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and tightness in her chest. Asthma can be life-threatening. It's always possible that she may grow out of it, but until then you need to reduce, preferably eliminate, her exposure to the culprit causing her attacks.
Nine times out of ten, the culprit is probably her pet of choice. "The reality [of having a pet] really depends on how severe the child's asthma is and how well the symptoms can be controlled, and whether the parents feel such meds are worth the potential long-term risk," Dr. Marsha T. Wallace, a board-certified physician of internal medicine and retired assistant professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, explains. In other words, you now have your work cut out for you.
Choosing your family pet may require some research and a lot of compromise. “Hypoallergenic dogs like poodles and bichon frise are both breeds that are very smart and easy to train. Other good dogs that are also hypoallergenic are Shih Tzu, schnauzer and Yorkshire terrier. These, as well as the poodle, tend not to shed and have little if any dander. People think pets like turtles and snakes are good as well, but you have to be careful that mold doesn't grow in their area,” says Dr. Mary Ann Block of the Block Center in Hurst, Texas, a family physician who specializes in allergies. “Pets that an asthmatic child should not have are many, including cats, hamsters, rabbits and rats," notes Block. Goldfish, anyone?
The little nasties, or triggers, that spark your child’s asthma attacks are the proteins in the dander (like our dandruff), saliva, urine and feces that are on the pet’s coat -- not the animal's fur or feathers themselves. To that end, when looking for a pet, Dr. Wallace suggests a test run with the pet of choice at a location other than home. “Once the child is on maintenance meds for their asthma, visit a home with a dog [or other pet of choice] armed with antihistamines and a 'rescue' inhaler.” She adds, “This will only work for those who have immediate sensitivity, although the onset of asthma generally will happen quickly."
It’s quite possible that your child will outgrow her asthma (one can only hope). But a new pet may spark an unexpected attack. To help prevent this, try these "just in case" precautions. Don’t let the pet sleep in the bedroom, no matter how much those baby-blues tear up. Vacuum using a HEPA filter. Use a HEPA filter on your air-conditioning and heating units. Wash your pet regularly, keep carpeting and rugs to a minimum, and dust frequently.