While we all love our cats and dogs, some new mother’s sometimes worry that bringing a new pet into their home could cause disease or illness to their newborn. Well, no need to worry any more! A new study finds that children who lived with dogs or cats during their first year of life got sick less frequently than kids who didn’t have pets in the house.
The study, published in Monday's edition of the journal “Pediatrics”, provides fresh evidence for the counterintuitive notion that an overly clean environment may not be ideal for babies.
In fact, sharing a home with a pet could be an early form of cross-training for the body's defense systems. Studies also suggest that the dirt brought indoors by pets could actually bolster the communities of helpful bacteria, yeast and other microscopic creatures that live in a developing child's body. (almost like a flu shot!)
For the new study, European researchers tracked the health of 397 Finnish children born between September 2002 and May 2005. When the infants were nine weeks old, parents began keeping weekly diaries to document a number of indicators of their children’s health, including runny noses, coughs and ear infections. Parents also noted when their babies were given antibiotics. When the children celebrated their first birthdays, the parents were asked to complete a questionnaire.
Overall, the researchers found that cats and dogs were linked to a reduced incidence of various types of illness. The effect was stronger for dogs than for cats: Babies who lived with dogs were 31% more likely to be in good health than their counterparts who didn't, and babies with cats had a 6% advantage over those without feline family members.
The children with pet dogs were 44% less likely to develop ear infections and 29% less likely to have used antibiotics during their first year, the report said.
Here's where the plot thickened: Although living with a cat or dog was correlated with good health, the benefit was biggest when those pets weren't around the house very much.
In cat-owning households, babies whose cats were indoors more than 16 hours a day were healthy 70.8% of the time. But in homes where the cat was inside for less than six hours a day, babies were healthy 78.2% of the time. For the sake of comparison, young children who lived in cat-free zones were healthy 66.1% of the time.
A similar pattern held for dogs: Kids with indoor dogs were healthy 72.2% of the time, and that figure rose to 75.7% for children whose dogs spent fewer than six hours indoors each day.
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