July 10, 2012

Babies Healthier In Families With Dogs

Connie K. Ho for - Your Universe Online

Dogs aren´t just the best friends of humans—they´re also effective in transforming the medical sate of babies. Researchers recently discovered that Finnish babies who live in a home with a dog had fewer weeks of cough, ear infections, and running noses; those who lived with cats had similar results but to a lesser extent. These infants also had less of a chance of needing antibiotics than those babies who lived at home without pets.

The research was led by Dr. Eija Bergroth of the Kuopio University Hospital in Finland. The team stated that a possible explanation for the results of the study was based on the idea that allergens and dirt were beneficial for the immune systems of the babies. The scientists looked at a total of 397 infants that were born between September 2002 and May 2005 at the Kuopio University Hospital.

"In many ways, (the study is) saying, if you're exposed to a natural environment“¦ your immune system recognizes that you don't fight the normal allergens," commented Dr. T. Bernard Kinane, the chief of the pediatric pulmonary unit at MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston, in a Reuters Health article.

Beginning when their child was nine weeks old, the parents of these babies kept weekly diaries of the babies´ health along with the child´s interaction with dogs and cats. Based on the recorded data and a questionnaire filled out at the end of the year, the investigators found that 35 percent of the participants spent a large amount of time with a pet dog during their first year and 24 percent of the subjects spent a majority of time with a pet cat during the initial year. Even though only a third of the families had dogs or cats, the majority of the infants had some kind of contact with a dog sometime during the study period and one third of the babies had exposure to a cat at some time.

Before the first year was over, parents reported a number of different health conditions. Of the infants included in the project, 384 had runny or stuffy noses, 335 had bouts of coughing, 285 of the babies had a minimum of one fever, 189 needed antibiotics for illnesses, 157 had ear infections, and 128 had bouts of wheezing. Researchers discovered that dogs, more so than cats, were linked to a shorter amount of sickness for babies.

"The strongest effect was seen with dog contacts. We do not know why it was stronger than with cat contacts," Bergroth said in an interview with WebMD. "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."

The team of scientists believes that infants who have spent between zero to six hours of the day with dogs were the least likely to show symptoms of sickness.

"A possible explanation for this interesting finding might be that the amount of dirt brought inside the home by dogs could be higher in these families because (the dog) spent more time outdoors," wrote the researchers in the report that will be featured in the journal Pediatrics.

The theory provided by the investigators is known as “hygiene hypothesis” or the “microbiome hypothesis” and explains hoe dirt and germs from a dog in a home may help a child´s immune system develop faster. As such, the body is better equipped to defend against virus and bacteria. This can help eliminate any respiratory problems.

"The microbiome hypothesis is that early-life exposure to wide varieties of microbes lets them mix with the microbes in the gut and helps them keep the immune system from reacting against itself and causing autoimmune disease, or from reacting against stuff you should ignore and causing allergy," Dr. Karen DeMuth, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Atlanta's Emory University, told WebMD.