There’s another reason why furry pets are good companions: to reduce the risk of developing asthma, according to new research.

The findings from an ongoing study, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), suggest exposure to pet and pest allergens during infancy lowers the risk of developing asthma by age seven.

Previous studies have said reducing allergen exposure at home can help control a person’s asthma. However, this new study shows exposing infants to allergens before asthma is developed can prevent the chronic disease.

“Allergens from cats, dogs, and other animals can trigger symptoms in children and adults who already have asthma and who have an allergic sensitization to the animal,” Dr. Peter Gergen of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told International Business Times. “This study revealed a link between exposure to allergens early in life and a reduced risk of developing asthma in the first place.”

URECA Study

The findings come from the ongoing Urban Environment and Childhood Asthma (URECA) study, funded by the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The study looks at risk factors for asthma among minors living in cities, where asthma is strongest and most prevalent. More than 500 newborns from Baltimore, Boston, New York City and St. Louis  have been enrolled in the URECA study since 2005. The children in the group are at high risk of asthma, with one parent suffering of asthma or allergies. URECA researchers have been observing the minors since they were born. For the recent findings, researchers looked at 442 children enrolled in URECA that had enough data to evaluate asthma status at age seven. Among the group, 130 minors had asthma.

Cockroach, Mice, Cat And Dog Allergens

Researchers found higher concentrations of cockroach, mouse and cat allergens in dust samples gathered from homes of the children during the minors’ first three years of life were linked to lower risk of developing asthma by age seven. As for dogs, researchers found a similar effect, but not as significant and could be due to chance.

The study brings hope to new parents who might be thinking about getting rid of their pet as they bring in a baby to their home.

“New parents may weigh many factors when deciding whether to have a pet in the home, but findings from this and other studies suggest that exposure to pets in infancy may be beneficial to prevent development of asthma and allergies later in childhood,” said Gergen.

As for cockroaches and mice, people should still clean their homes.

“We found that children living in homes with higher concentrations of allergens from cockroaches, mice, and cats were less likely to develop asthma by age 7 years,” said Gergen. “These intriguing early-stage results warrant further study. It is far too early to recommend that people stop cleaning their house.”

Microbes and Asthma

The microbial environment during a person’s infancy may also be associated with asthma risk, a previous URECA report said. Researchers found microbiomes of house dust collected in the first year of a child’s life may protect three-year-olds from recurrent wheezing, a factor that can lead to the development of asthma. The findings released this week indicate exposure to certain types of bacteria early in life could influence the development of the chronic disease.

The recent findings could help in developing strategies to prevent asthma, researchers say.

“Understanding more about the factors that influence development of asthma will help inform development of strategies to prevent asthma before it starts,” said Gergen. “While this study suggests that early exposure to allergens and certain bacteria may reduce the risk of developing asthma, more research will be needed to better understand these relationships and to develop specific prevention strategies.”

The current study was published this week in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Meanwhile, URECA continues to monitor the group for more information on which early-life factors influence the development of asthma, a disease that affects more than eight percent of U.S. children.