A recently published German study about pet exposure in childhood has not only confirmed that there is less allergy in children in pet households, but a new finding shows when these children become adults they are less buffeted by life’s stresses, and less likely to develop anxiety or depression.
By Sasha Klemawesch, MD
Finally, scientific proof of dogs’ superiority! Research studies have reported a variety of health benefits provided to owners by their dogs; perhaps most pertinent to this newsletter being those related to allergies.
A trio of studies in 2003, ’04 and ‘05 in various allergy journals (Current Opinions in Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, and Current Allergy Asthma Reports) all reported that children who had dogs in their homes as infants were less likely to develop a variety of allergic maladies, including atopic dermatitis and wheezing, compared with pet-free households.
Many doctors will tell you the key core foundations of good health are regular exercise and a balanced diet. Now dogs won’t cook your dinner, but a Journal of Preventative Medicine study showed that dog owners were much more likely to meet the recommended 30 minutes a day goal of moderate physical activity. Dogs also help with your mental health. A University of Portsmouth study showed dog owners were less likely to suffer a depressive episode, and that overall, they had a better sense of well-being, social connection, and less loneliness. And dogs’ psychological benefits can extend beyond the home-front. The International Journal of Healthy Workplaces (yes, that is an actual thing) conducted a study on dogs and workplace productivity, finding that workers who could have their canine companions with them at the office had decreased job stress, increased productivity and job satisfaction.
But don’t worry cat people, you guys aren’t totally wrong. Turns out cats have benefits for their owners too. Cat and dog owners both tend to reap the benefits of a statistically significant decrease in the number of times they get sick each year, and many of the psychosocial benefits apply to cat owners as well.
The one place dogs really seem to display a potentially scientifically founded superiority is the arena of asthma and allergy. And I say potential, because there are a lot of conflicting study results out there, some of which cite no change in asthma among kids who had cats or dogs in their house as an infant, but many which do.
For example, the European study which found an increased risk of asthma in children with feline or farm animal exposure early in life vs decrease risk with canine contact. To date there have been a plethora of studies evaluating various aspects of atopy (a genetic tendency to develop heightened immune responses, even allergic diseases, to common allergens – especially to inhaled and food allergens, and animal exposures. The results have been varied.
A large meta-analysis of them, however, reported that among all the animals studied, dogs are the most consistently proven to have positive effect on the immune system. Cats, birds, reptiles, et al, all tended to have neutral or negative effects.
Ever since the Hygiene Hypothesis was proposed in 1989 as the reason for burgeoning allergy in the modern world, more and more research tends to confirm this idea. By way of reminder: The Hygiene Hypothesis posits that modern man is “too clean” and, therefore, his idle immune system looks for “work,” and ends up causing allergic mischief.
One of the supporting observations: It seems that if pets are present before a child is born, the child is less likely to be pet-allergic than if the pets appear after the child has lived in the home for a while. A recently published childhood allergy study done at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital supports this view and adds new insight. This longitudinal study, initiated in 1987, has tracked 555 children to adulthood.
Sure enough, as investigators had suspected but never scientifically proved, the presence of a cat or dog prior to birth led to reduced cat or dog allergy later in life, as compared to introducing the animal after birth. The pet-specific allergic reduction was better for dog than cat by 61 percent to 37 percent. Of perhaps even greater interest was that pre-birth pets also led to a global reduction in all allergies.
The Henry Ford researchers feel this is because the gastrointestinal flora that is established early in life is healthier when pets are present. Healthy gut flora alter immune response, so as to promote tolerance to common allergens.
Another reminder: to reduce pollen and mold being brought into your house by pet dogs, rinse their paws on the way back inside. A shallow pan with water at the back door or the garage works well for this task. Also, the human inhabitants can leave their shoes outside to the same end.