Dogs Boost Children’s Immune System

By Amir Khan on July 9, 2012 10:57 AM EDT

dog
Babies who live with dogs throughout their first year of life may be less prone to developing respiratory illnesses as they get older, including the common cold (Photo: Creative Commons)

Babies who live with dogs throughout their first year of life may be less prone to developing respiratory illnesses as they get older, including the common cold, according to a new study, published in the journal Pediatrics.

"Children who had dog contacts at home were healthier and had less frequent ear infections and needed fewer courses of antibiotics than children who had no dog contacts," Dr. Eija Bergroth, study author and pediatrician at Kuopio University Hospital in Finland, told HealthDay.

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Researchers looked at nearly 400 children and found that children who lived with dogs were 33 percent more likely to be healthy during their first year, compared to children without pets. The children with pets were also 44 percent less likely to develop an ear infection and 29 percent less likely to need antibiotics, researchers said.

While cats did appear to have an impact on the children's health as well, the effect was not as strong or multifaceted, according to the study.

It's not exactly clear how the animals boost the immune system, but researchers said it's possible that the dogs bring in foreign pathogens that strengthen it similarly to the way vaccines work.

"One possible explanation might be that the dogs bring something inside the house -- dirt, soil -- that affects the immune maturation of the child, leading to more composed immunologic reactions to infectious agents later when the child comes in contact with viruses and bacteria," Bergroth said.

However Dr. Jennifer Appleyard, chief of allergy and immunology at St. John Hospital and Medical Center in Detroit, told HealthDay it may not be so simple.

"Having pets may have some positive aspects. Pets may offer some protection against developing a propensity for infections or atopic diseases, but I think the development of the immune system is very complicated," she said.

Bergroth stressed that parents should not rush out to get pets for their children, but said there is no reason to stay away from them for fear of their children getting sick.

"[There is] no reason to avoid animal contacts because of fear of infections, at least not respiratory infections," she said

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