Background: Although asthma is strongly associated with immediate hypersensitivity to indoor allergens, several studies have suggested that a cat in the house can decrease the risk of asthma. We investigated the immune response to cat and mite allergens, and asthma among children with a wide range of allergen exposure.
Methods: We did a population-based cross-sectional study of children (aged 12-14 years), some of whom had symptoms of asthma and bronchial hyper-reactivity. Antibodies to mite (Der f 1) and cat (Fel d 1) allergens measured by isotype (IgG and IgG4) specific radioimmunoprecipitation assays were compared with sensitisation and allergen concentrations in house dust.
Findings: 226 children were recruited, 47 of whom had symptoms of asthma and bronchial hyper-reactivity. Increasing exposure to mite was associated with increased prevalence of sensitisation and IgG antibody to Der f 1. By contrast, the highest exposure to cat was associated with decreased sensitisation, but a higher prevalence of IgG antibody to Fel d 1. Thus, among children with high exposure, the odds of sensitisation to mite rather than cat was 4.0 (99% CI 1.49-10.00). Furthermore, 31 of 76 children with 23 microg Fel d 1 at home, who were not sensitised to cat allergen had >125 units of IgG antibody to Fel d 1. Antibodies to Fel d 1 of the IgG4 isotype were strongly correlated with IgG antibody in both allergic and non-allergic children (r=0.84 and r=0.66, respectively). Sensitisation to mite or cat allergens was the strongest independent risk factor for asthma (p<0.001).
Interpretation: Exposure to cat allergen can produce an IgG and IgG4 antibody response without sensitisation or risk of asthma. This modified T-helper-2 cell response should be regarded as a form of tolerance and may be the correct objective of immunotherapy. The results may also explain the observation that animals in the house can decrease the risk of asthma.