If you’re thinking of expanding your family, here’s yet another reason it’s a good idea to start with a puppy: Having a dog in the house can protect a child from respiratory tract infections during the first year of his or her life.
In the first study of its kind, Finnish researchers report that overall, children who live in homes with dogs are healthier than children who have no contact with pets.
The study involved 397 Finnish children born between September 2002 and May 2005. Mothers kept weekly diaries, stating their children’s contact with dogs and cats and any infectious diseases or symptoms they may have experienced, including coughing, wheezing, fever, ear infections, or rashes. Researchers also noted whether each child was breastfed, since breastfeeding has also been linked with protection against early respiratory tract infections.
After approximately 44 weeks, researchers found that 61.7 percent of children had had contact with dogs, and 34.3 percent had contact with cats at some point during the study. While children who had contact with both dogs and cats were healthier than those without pets, those who had contact with dogs were “significantly healthier.” In particular, they reported less frequent otitis, or inflammation of the ear, and they needed less antibiotics than children without pets.
While more contact with dogs resulted in healthier children, researchers noted that the healthiest children lived in homes where dogs spent less than six hours indoors, and thus more time outdoors. These children had the lowest risk of infections and respiratory tract infections.
Researchers suggested that dogs that spent more time outdoors brought in more dirt to the home. While this does result in more bacteria, it also results in more “bacterial diversity” in the living environment, they said, “possibly affecting the maturation of the children’s immune system and further affecting the risk of respiratory tract infections.”
It should also be noted that the children involved in the study lived in rural or suburban environments. Previous studies have reported that children who grow up on a farm or in the country are less likely to develop allergies than those who live in urban areas. The Finnish researchers noted this and other confounding factors, but found that the associations between dog-owning children and health did not change.
In addition, the breed for both dogs and cats was not evaluated. Researchers were not sure why dogs appeared to provide better protection against allergies and infections than cats.
It’s also worth mentioning that previous studies have suggested children ages 12 to 14 have reported more colds, increased wheezing, and rhinitis in households that had pets. This Finnish study suggests that having a pet in the house within the first year of a child’s life is crucial, since respiratory infectious symptoms and diseases are frequent during the first year.
The full study was published in the journal Pediatrics.