Many babies are healthier in homes that have dogs. According to a new study by Finnish scientists, babies in homes with dogs were found to have fewer colds, fewer ear infections, and need fewer antibiotics in their first year of life than babies raised in pet-free homes.
"It might have something to do with dirt brought inside by the dogs, especially since the strongest protective effect was seen with children living in houses where dogs spent a lot of time outside," suggests Dr. Eija Bergroth of Finland's Kuopio University Hospital.
The research team followed 397 Finnish children when they were still inside their mother's womb from their third trimester of pregnancy through the infant's first 12 months of life. Parents kept weekly diaries with detailed information on their child's health and contact with dogs and cats. The results were tallied and revealed that babies exposed to dogs in the home appeared to get sick less often.
Although dogs had positive effects on many of the babies health, it didn't prevent babies from actually getting sick. Of the 397 babies studied, parents reported that before their first birthday, 285 of the babies had at least one fever, 157 had an ear infection, 335 had a cough, 384 got stuffy or runny noses and 189 needed to take antibiotics at some point.
As to why dogs might make babies healthier, one popular, long-standing theory is that exposure to dirt and bacteria builds up babies' immune systems.
"It might have something to do with the dog itself as an animal," Bergroth suggests. "The living environment can also affect this. These children lived in rural or suburban areas, so inner-city kids - and dogs - might get different results."
Children's immune systems mature best when infants are exposed to germs in just the right amount. Too many germs are unhealthy, but an overly sterile, germ-free home is unhealthy too.
Last month, a study revealed babies with dogs in the home were less likely to get childhood asthma and allergies because of microbes found in house dust of homes with dogs.
The findings of both studies support a hygiene hypothesis, where it's not only exposure to germs but also exposure to good bacteria and viruses that protect against them that help fight infections.
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