The aim of this study was to assess the association between keeping pets in early childhood and the occurrence of atopic dermatitis in an ongoing birth cohort followed up to the age of 2 years. We analyzed data of 4578 children in the intervention and observation part of an ongoing cohort study. The children were recruited at birth in the two study regions Wesel and Munich between January 1996 and June 1998. Information on atopic diseases and pet ownership was obtained by questionnaire at the child's first and second birthday. The logistic regression model showed a negative association between 'keeping any pet' and in particular 'keeping dogs' in the 1st year of life and the development of atopic dermatitis in the 1st and the 2nd years of life. The protective effects remained statistically significant after adjusting for several possible confounding variables (1st year(any) pet OR 0.71, 95% CI [0.55;0.92], 1st year(dog) OR 0.62, 95% CI [0.39;0.98], 2nd year(any) pet OR 0.74, 95% CI [0.57;0.97], 2nd year(dog) OR 0.63, 95% CI [0.40;0.98]). Ownership of small furred pets (hamster, rabbit and guinea pig) also showed a borderline protective effect for the 1st year. We assume an association between keeping pets and undefined environmental factor(s) that contribute protectively to the development of atopic dermatitis in early life, presumably by effects on the maturation of the immune system.