Dogs, cats keep kids healthierChildren who grow up with dogs or cats gain more than companionship and fun from their furry friends. They get a jump-start on good health, research reveals.
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
Children who grow up with dogs or cats gain more than companionship and fun from their furry friends. They get a jump-start on good health, research reveals.
A new study finds children who lived with dogs or cats during their first year of life got sick less frequently than kids from pet-free zones. The study, published in a recent edition of the journal Pediatrics, provides fresh evidence for the counterintuitive notion that an overly clean environment may not be ideal for babies.
Sharing a home with a pet may be an early form of cross-training for the body’s defense systems. Previous research has shown that owning a cat or dog was associated with less risk of gastroenteritis in young children. Gastroenteritis is a virus infection, marked by inflammation in the stomach and intestines, that causes vomiting and diarrhea.
Studies also suggest the dirt — and microbes — brought indoors by pets could bolster the communities of helpful bacteria, yeast and other microscopic creatures that live in a developing child’s body.
Dogs’ greater effect
Overall, the researchers found that cats and dogs were linked to a reduced incidence of various types of illness.
The effect was stronger for dogs than for cats. Babies who lived with dogs were 31 percent more likely to be in good health than their counterparts who didn’t, and babies with cats had a 6 percent advantage over those without feline family members.
The children with pet dogs were 44 percent less likely to develop ear infections and 29 percent less likely to have used antibiotics during their first year, the report said.
“Respiratory tract infections are common in infants and children,” said Dr. Jennifer Peterson, a pediatrician with Altru Health System in Grand Forks. Some of those infections will lead to ear infections.
“If you’re less likely to have ear infections, there’s less need for antibiotics.”
More time outdoors, better kids’ health
Although living with a cat or dog was correlated with good health, the benefit was biggest when those pets weren’t around the house very much.
In cat-owning households, babies whose cats were indoors more than 16 hours a day were healthy 70.8 percent of the time. By comparison, young children who lived in cat-free zones were healthy 66.1 percent of the time.
A similar pattern held for dogs: Kids with homebody canines were healthy 72.2 percent of the time, and that figure rose to 75.7 percent for children whose dogs spent less than six hours indoors each day. In dogless households, babies were healthy 64.8 percent of the time.
The researchers offered a possible explanation for the puzzling pattern: Pets that spent more time outdoors brought more dirt into their homes, giving babies more opportunities to encounter it. That exposure could have caused their immune systems to mature faster than they would have otherwise, they wrote.
Overly clean environment
The study is not surprising to health care professionals, Peterson said. The “hygiene hypothesis” has been on scientists’ radar for years.
Numerous studies have explored underlying reasons why farm kids tend to have fewer allergies than kids in urban areas.
This field of research “basically looks at ‘Are germs good?’ and whether pets are bringing good germs in from outside,” she said. “It’s a great thing to study.”
Americans’ focus on being excessively clean has its drawbacks.
“We’ve developed an environment that’s overly clean. Research is showing that it’s OK to be a little bit dirty.”
The human body harbors lots of bacteria, she said, especially in the large intestine. “Good” bacteria aid digestion. “Bad” bacteria cause diarrhea and other health problems.
In an infant, exposure to good bacteria is equivalent to “priming the immune system,” Peterson said, “so the body can fend off infections.”
However, the most effective means of preventing any illness in babies is to breastfeed, she said. “Breast-fed babies have better immune systems; they get fewer colds and they have protection against asthma and allergies. That’s been well-studied.
“It’s still the best protective measure for your baby.”
Potential pet threats
Peterson routinely talks with parents about pets in the home, she said, warning them not to allow cats to lie in a baby’s crib due to the potential threat of SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
She also cautions parents about the threat of dog and cat bites, advising them to avoid breeds of dogs that have an earned reputation for biting — pit bulls, heelers, Doberman pinschers and German shepherds.
Better choices are Labrador and golden retrievers, she said.
She warns against having reptiles, such as snakes and turtles, in the home. They can carry bacteria like salmonella that cause illness.
In view of the new research findings, Peterson said the take-away message is: It’s OK for kids to get a little dirty, but they still need to wash their hands to prevent infections.
“I don’t know that I’m going to tell parents to go out and buy a cat or dog because of this study, but it’s not a bad thing to own a pet.”
Amina Khan of the Los Angeles Times contributed to this article. Call Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1107; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.