A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics points out what most attentive parents have known for years: pets make kids healthier. Loving companionship is likely a factor, although the study conducted by Finnish and German medical doctors suggests that for children early in life, pet ownership may play a significant role in increased health via strengthened immune systems.
Kids and pets, together in health
The joint study conducted by researchers from the Finland’s University of Eastern Finland, Kuopio University Hospital, National Institute for Health and Welfare and Germany’s University of Ulm found that children living in a home with one pet during the child’s first year of life is more likely to be healthier when compared with children of the same age in a home without pets.
“It’s more support in a growing body of evidence that exposure to pets early in life can stimulate the immune system to do a better job of fighting off infection,” said Danielle Fisher of St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., said in regards to the study findings.
Specifically, kids who had a dog during their first year of life had 31 percent fewer respiratory tract infections than kids who didn’t live with a dog, researchers found. In addition, children in homes where there is pet ownership experienced 44 percent fewer ear infections and thus needed fewer antibiotics than did children in pet-free households.
While cats also registered as health benefits in the study, the impact was not as large, according to the study researchers.
“Our findings support the theory that during the first year of life, animal contacts are important, possibly leading to better resistance to infectious respiratory illnesses during childhood,” wrote the research team.
Specifics of the study, and why dirt matters
The Finnish/German study surveyed a group of 397 children in Finland, some in homes with pets, others without. Researchers tracked the health status of the children from birth until age 1. Families reported how much contact the children had with either a dog or cat on a weekly basis.
According to ABC News, there was a highly quantifiable relationship between the amount of time an indoor pet spent inside the house and the health benefits children in the households enjoyed. For instance, those children who spent time indoors with dogs for less than six hours per day were at lowest risk of experiencing respiratory issues. Study authors believe this is because indoor dogs track less dirt. Those dogs that spent more time outside would tend to track in more dirt, which would introduce more types of bacteria into the household, which in turn would strengthen the children’s immune systems.