Furry Pets Benefit Children at Risk of Allergies

It was once believed that children raised around pets might be at an increased risk of developing allergies. However, research has since shown that the oppositeis actually true.

Exposure to pets in early childhood appears to be protectiveagainst the development of allergies, even in children at increased risk. One recent study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, revealed one reason why having pets may be so beneficial for kids at risk of allergies.1

Early Exposure to Pet Microbes May Strengthen Infants' Immune Systems

Finnish researchers wanted to examine why early exposure to pets may be protective against allergies, so they collected fecal samples from one-month-old babies at increased risk of developing allergies. 

One-third of the infants living in a home with a furry pet (dogs, cats, or rabbits) had animal-specific bacteria in their fecal samples compared to 14 percent of those living in a pet-free home.

At six months old, the babies were tested for allergies. While 19 of the more than 100 infants tested had a reaction to at least one of the allergens tested, none of the infants that had animal-specific bacteria in their fecal samples did. Study co-author Dr. Merja Nermes of the University of Turku in Finland, told Reuters:2

"When infants and furry pets live in a close contact in the same household, transfer of microbiota between pets and infants occurs … For example, when a dog licks the infant´s face or hand, the pet-derived microbiota can end up via the mouth into the infant´s intestine."

It's thought that exposure to the animal-specific microbes has beneficial effects, including potentially strengthening the infants' immune systems.

Plentiful Research Supports the Benefits of Pets on Children's Health

The featured study is only one of numerous studies linking dog or cat ownership to a lower risk of allergies, asthma, and respiratory and ear infections in children. For instance:

  • In a 2012 study published in Pediatrics, infants who had contact with dogs in the home had 31 percent fewer respiratory tract illnesses and infections, 44 percent fewer ear infections, and 29 percent fewer antibiotic prescriptions than kids with no contact with dogs.3
  • A 2011 study published in Clinical & Experimental Allergy showed infants living in homes with cats had 50 percent fewer cat allergies than children not exposed to kitties from birth to one year of age.4
  • A 2009 study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology showed kids who lived with both a cat and a dog were less likely than other children to have allergies at age 13.5
  • A 2008 study published in Clinical & Experimental Allergy concluded exposure to dogs in infancy – especially around the time of birth – is associated with changes in immune development and a reduction in wheezing and allergic hypersensitivity.6
  • A 2002 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed infants exposed to two or more dogs or cats during their first year had fewer allergies not only to pets but also to dust mites and ragweed.7

One revealing animal study also found that mice exposed to dust collected from the home of a dog owner had the dog-related bacteria Lactobacillus johnsonii in their guts. The microbes actually reshaped the community of living organisms in the rodents' GI tracts, and these changes affected the immune response of the mice and their ability to fight off certain allergens.8

When the L. johnsonii bacteria were given to two groups of mice not exposed to "dog dust," they, too, developed protection against airway allergen challenge and viral respiratory infection. The researchers concluded:

"Early-life exposure to dogs is protective against allergic disease development, and dog ownership is associated with a distinct milieu of house dust microbial exposures. Here, we show that mice exposed to dog-associated house dust are protected against airway allergen challenge."

Pets Benefit Kids Emotionally, Too

It's a common and sad tale when new parents give up their pets once a baby enters the home. However, parents should keep in mind that not only are pets not a temporary commitment (adopting a pet is a commitment for their lifetime), but your furry family members can benefit your children in numerous ways.

When psychologist Dr. June McNicholas of the University of Warwick studied nearly 350 children aged three to 14, it was found that 40 percent said they sought out their pet when upset or bored. And as Susan Dawson, a researcher in human communications at Manchester Metropolitan University, told The Daily Mail:9

"From studies I have carried out backed up by case studies it becomes clear that pet ownership, or simply the chance to spend some time with pets, children can benefit a lot … They learn nurturing skills and are rewarded for their efforts …

They are given unconditional warmth which can be reassuring and they actually seem more motivated to talk and describe their experiences."

Kids who grow up with pets also tend to have higher levels of emotional intelligence than kids who do not. This includes increased compassion and empathy, improved self-esteem and cognitive development, and stress relief.10

Are You Considering Adding a Pet to Your Family?

If your older child expresses the desire for a pet, it's a good time to have a talk about responsibility and the permanency of owning a pet. Be sure your child has expressed a consistent desire for a pet (not simply a passing mention) and understands that it will require daily care (work) and not just playtime.

It's a good idea to set up expectations ahead of time for what pet-care responsibilities your child will need to fulfill. Discuss these with your child and agree upon them together. Very young children shouldn't be expected to care for pets without assistance. They can help, of course, but if your child is under five you can assume that you'll be doing most of the pet care.

Children under the age of three to four should be monitored with pets at all times, and even children under 10 should not be expected to care for a dog or cat completely on their own.

That being said, even if your child commits to the responsibility, only add a pet to your family if you are prepared to take over their care if your child does not. If you decide your child is ready for a pet, resist the urge to give her one as a surprise. Instead, involve your child in each step of the process, including selecting the right pet for your family.

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