Sunday, 27 May, 2001, 00:10 GMT 01:10 UK
Keeping cats in the first year of life can help children
Parents are sometimes wary of keeping pets when they have a new baby.
But a study suggests that children who are exposed to two or more cats and dogs in their first year of life have a reduced risk of allergy.
The research also indicates it could lead to boys having a better lung function.
The research, carried out by scientists at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta and the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Michigan looked at 473 children - 241 girls and 232 boys - some of whom had pets up to about seven-years-old.
Families can feel safe keeping dogs
It tested atopy - allergic reaction, lung function, and bronchial function each year.
A questionnaire when the children were one-year-old detailed whether or not they had pets.
Concentrations of dust mite allergens in bedrooms were measured at two years of age.
The children received skin tests to common allergens including cat, dog and dust when they were between six and seven years old.
They were also tested for lung and chest functions.
It was found those children who had been exposed to pets had half the number of positive skin tests to all the allergens compared to those who had not.
The researchers said that the link was still true when results were adjusted for gender, birth order, parental asthma and smoking and dust mite allergen levels.
In boys only, it was found that having two or more pets was linked to lower levels of immunoglobulin E, which is linked to hypersensitivity reactions, and better lung function.
The research was presented to the American Thoracic Society.
Dr Warren Lenney, a consultant respiratory paediatrician at North Staffordshire Royal Infirmary, and a member of the British Thoracic Society's external relations board, told BBC News Online the thinking in the past had been to get rid of cats and dogs because they could be a health hazard.
He said: "It very much depends on whether dogs and cats have been there for years or whether it's a new acquisition.
"But they are still very bad news if you are an asthmatic to acquire a dog not having had one before."
But he said he found it "difficult to understand" why boys had different results than girls.
A spokeswoman for the Cats Protection League said: "These findings are good news for cats who are all too often seen as the cause of allergic reactions in children rather than a risk reduction factor."