When the Obama family brought a dog into the White House in spring of 2009, they got a breed called a Portuguese water dog. This particular breed was chosen because of it’s coat, which is fleecy and sheds less hair than dogs generally do—an important consideration in light of Malia Obama’s allergies. Bo the dog was chosen in part to avoid triggering health problems in the President’s older daughter.
Later studies, however, found that so-called hypoallergenic breeds such as the Portuguese water dog are actually no safer, in regards to allergies, than other breeds. While some breeds shed less than others, shedding can also be controlled with grooming techniques. The allergy trigger isn’t really shed hair, according to pet experts; it’s dander, and while less shedding also means less dander, analysis of dust in homes with different dog breeds found no significant difference in the amount of allergens associated with different breeds of dog.
In fact, in homes with infants, dogs may actually prevent asthma and allergies from developing. The leading hypothesis for the cause of allergies is lack of exposure during childhood to harmless substances—such as pet dander—that nonetheless trip the immune system. That means having a pet in the home during childhood will help keep kids from allergic responses to irritants later in life. Now a study specifically confirms that pet dander protects against allergies. Infants raised with dogs that are regularly allowed outside have intestinal microflora that repel allergens and respiratory infection, and show less immune reaction to allergens.
In another study, dust found in homes with dogs served to protect against respiratory syncytial virus. RSV is common in infants, and while it is normally harmless, going away in less than two weeks, it can have a dangerous side. RSV is the most common cause of pneumonia in children under one year in the United States, and it’s particularly dangerous in children who already have conditions affecting the lungs, heart, or immune system. However, studies show that even in risky cases, having a dog in the house can help limit the severity and length of the infection.