We all know how dogs (and yes, even cats) can enrich the lives of adults emotionally but now research from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada suggesting that a dog really is a baby’s best friend. Muddy paws and shedding coats that create a mess for Mom, also offer a protective sphere for her bundle of joy. And the reasons may surprise you.
For decades, researchers have observed that children who grow up with dogs have lower rates of asthma and are better able to fend off allergic diseases that may come later on. This is attributed to the “hygiene hypothesis” which suggests that a little dirt is good for all of us–especially babies. The cleaner the environment the more likely a growing child will see a rise in allergies. Exposure to germs helps an infant’s growing immune system build resistance to infection but a lack of exposure to germs inhibits the immune system’s ability to distinguish between good and bad germs and react appropriately. In tandem with a baby’s developing immune system is its gut microbiome—a little hothouse of microorganisms that live in the intestinal tract and aid our digestion. However, once there is a puppy present, the microbiome population changes. Whether they are licking their baby pals or cuddling, dogs are the perfect conduit for sharing microbes.
The Canadian study, while small, showed that of 24 babies, the 15 who lived with pets had a higher diversity of microbes in their guts. Epidemiologists from the University of Alberta also discovered that those babies who lived in dog-owning families had two types of microbes that were associated not only with a lowered risk of allergic disease but also a lowered risk of obesity.
Using a longer leash, investigators in Sweden combed through the records of one million children and discovered that school-aged children who lived in dog-owning families (approximately 275,000) had a 13% lowered chance of developing asthma than their peers who grew up without a dog.
But when it comes to adults with fully formed microbiomes, puppies are seldom more than mood lifters—although some early stage research suggests that dog owners had improved immune systems as evidenced by lower levels of inflammatory cytokines that are present in depression, dementia, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.
So next time you are considering buying your tot a stuffed dog, get him or her the real thing—and while you’re at it—get a dog for yourself!
By Rose-Marie Brandwein