We all know our favorite feline and cuddly canine can make us smile and bring joy to our family, but did you know the family pet can provide health benefits as well? Studies have shown children who grow up in homes with cats and/or dogs seem to have fewer allergies than kids in pet-free homes, and those who have contact with a dog tend to get fewer ear and respiratory infections during their first year of life.
A study in Finland tracked almost 400 children from before their birth through their first year of life. Thirty-five percent of the children lived in homes with dogs, 24 percent with cats, and 41 percent with no pets at all. The infants who had daily contact with a dog experienced 31 percent fewer respiratory tract illnesses and infections and 44 percent fewer ear infections. The link between daily contact with a dog and less illness held true even when researchers accounted for other factors known to affect infection rates in babies, such as breast feeding. Infants with daily cat contact also had fewer infections, but the decrease wasn’t nearly as significant as it was with dogs.
The Finnish researchers speculate perhaps the dogs bring dirt or soil into the home and its presence strengthens the babies’ immune systems. Or perhaps the increased resistance to infection found in infants in homes with dogs has something to do with the dogs themselves.
The study results build on a growing body of evidence in support of the hygiene hypothesis, which states the large increase in allergies and other immune system disorders is due in part to our society’s recent obsession with cleanliness standards, with the use of hand sanitizer and other solvents used to create a completely “anti-bacterial” environment. Many people don’t realize it’s likely through early exposure to bacteria and parasites that the immature immune system in infants is prepared to fight dangerous infections. And this ‘priming’ of the immune system helps it learn the difference between serious health hazards – like pneumonia – and harmless irritants – like pet dander and pollen. According to the hygiene hypothesis, when a person’s immune system is unfamiliar with serious disease or illness, it is more likely to mount great attacks against benign environmental triggers.
A New Baby Does Not Mean You Must Rehome Your Furbaby!
Some first time parents think bringing a new human baby home means the family pet must go. In terms of germs and disease, this simply is not true! Hopefully the Finnish study findings will correct this misunderstanding, and future studies will continue to reinforce it.