Pet advice with vet Jo Gourlay

With the delightfully wet weather we’ve been treated to over the past few months, I’ve discovered my cats very much fall into the category of fair weather sportsmen.

I seem to spend much of my time on hands and knees fishing under beds to try to extract them from our bedrooms. The especially feline friendly spare room apparently doesn’t cut the mustard. Given the fact they frequently win the battle, I was relieved to read about a study that found exposure to pets while pregnant actually decreased the baby’s risk of asthma and allergies.

The study, which was published in The Journal of Allergy and Immunology, was monitoring the level of a particular type of antibody that is produced predominantly in response to allergy, called IgE. The total IgE level has been associated with risk for asthma in children.

On repeated blood samples collected between birth and two years of age, babies whose prenatal period (while in the womb) involved exposure to indoor pets had significantly lower IgE levels. This study ties in with other studies showing the “farm effect” where researchers found children growing up on central European farms have lower asthma and allergy rates. The theory seems to be that by exposing the body early on to lots of different potential bugs and allergy triggers, the immune system becomes trained to recognise them without overreacting to the ones that are harmless.

With all that said, it doesn’t mean rushing out to flood your home with pets when pregnant is necessarily a good idea. It’s not quite that cut and dry. In a different study it was found that young children with no maternal history of asthma benefited from having a cat in the home as it decreased their risk of wheezing by the age of five (which can be an initial indicator of asthma).

However, if the mother was asthmatic, the cat tripled the risk of wheezing developing in the child. Allergies aside, there are many practical reasons why a new pet and new baby together is not a great plan. It’s also worth always remembering that no pet should ever be left unsupervised with babies or young children.

It’s not just babies in the womb or children who supposedly benefit from exposure to animals: we do too. Having a dog encourages you to get outdoors and do some exercise, which is extremely beneficial both physically and mentally for your health. While outside, you are also more likely to socialise and your pet often provides you with amusing anecdotes of their latest antics and escapades.

Spending time fussing over your pet or even your dog just gazing into your eyes, actually causes your body to release oxytocin, a hormone that can cause anti-stress effects such as reducing blood pressure and lowering the body’s natural steroid (cortisol) level. So despite the chewed slippers and early morning walks in the drizzle, we pet owners can feel smug knowing our pets were doing us good all along.