This post is in response to a question from TheScientificParent.org reader, Melissa.
In the age of helicopter parents, it’s practically expected that moms and dads will move mountains, part seas and do pretty much anything humanly possible to protect their little ones. Preventing common illnesses like colds, flus, and infections is no exception, so it makes sense that some parents are wary around potential “germ hubs” like animals or other children. However, when it comes to household pets, shielding your child from dirt and dander from dogs and cats isn’t doing him or her any favors.
While it is true that dogs and cats are generally considered dirtier than humans because of their exposure to unsanitary floors and the great outdoors, their presence actually helps young children stay healthier during childhood and develop fewer allergies as adults. A large body of research suggests that this protective effect may be due to early exposure to the various bacteria carried by dogs and cats. Exposing young children to these bacteria early in life helps prime and train their immune systems early so that they’re stronger and better able to resist illness and allergies down the road.
To determine the correlation between family pets and childhood illness, Finnish researchers asked a group of parents to record health information about their children during their first year of life. The researchers found that compared to kids in pet-free homes, kids in homes with dogs had fewer respiratory tract infections, were less likely to develop ear infections, and needed fewer treatments of antibiotics. The study’s lead scientist explained that this might be because of exposure to dirt brought inside by dogs – especially because they found that children saw the greatest health benefit where the family dogs spent a good deal of time outside.
This positive health effect could also be because of the microbiome hypothesis, which states that early-life exposure to a variety of good microbes improves the immune system, by altering the microbes in the intestine to protect against allergies and infections.
Living with pets can also help lessen the chance of developing an allergy later on, but only if the pet is living with the child during the first year of life. In one study, researchers performed allergy tests on a group of 18-year-olds and compared the results with information about the child’s early home life. They found that babies who grew up in homes with a cat were about half as likely to develop a cat allergy, as compared to those in homes without cats. In addition, boys who grew up with a dog were half as vulnerable to developing dog allergies. Again, this is because the pet dander and bacteria are thought to accustom the body to different allergens, building up a natural immunity.
And it doesn’t stop there – children with more pets often experienced even better immunity. Of the kids surveyed in a similar allergy study, those who had grown up with two or more pets had up to a 77% reduction of risk. They were also less likely to develop allergies to dust mites, short ragweed, and blue grass (no, not the music).
There are plenty of other studies with similar results (which you can find complied here in an article on EverydayHealth.com). One found that children who were raised on farms with animals were less likely to develop allergies. Another found that children ages 5-11 in three schools in England and Scotland had fewer sick days if they had pets at home. A survey of 11,000 Australians, Chinese and Germans found that pet owners made up to 20% fewer visits to the doctor per year than non-pet owners.
Couple these health benefits with the plethora of emotional and social benefits, and it’s no mystery why more and more families welcome furry four-leggers into their homes.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the trend. Certain children are more prone to illness due to immune system weaknesses or other variable circumstances, and parents of these children should always follow their doctor’s advice about how to manage interactions with pets, other children, and even adults. In addition, children who have already developed allergies to dogs or cats should not be exposed to fur and dander if it’s avoidable.
For most young children, being around a pet does not pose any additional risks to their health. As I’ve said here, when introduced early in life, a pet can actually strengthen a children’s immune systems, keep them healthier, and lower their chances of developing allergies in the future. This information certainly doesn’t mean that you should get a cat or dog simply to improve your child’s immunity or lower the risk of allergies, but it’s just another reason to show man’s best friend a little extra love.