New parents may get anxious about how their beloved family pet will react to a new baby, and whether it’s safe for the animal to be around the new child. But a new study shows that the presence of a furry animal in your home can actually be beneficial for your children.
Researchers found that having animals in the home helped children build immunity to allergies and stave off diseases like obesity. When a pet is around, kids develop gut microbes that help them build up a healthy immune system because they have been exposed to a wider range of bacteria.
Researchers studied households that had pets during pregnancy but not once a baby was born, households that had pets during pregnancy and when the child was born, and households without pets. They examined fecal samples from 746 Canadian babies and found that babies from homes that had pets had twice the amount of two kinds of bacteria, Ruminococcus and Oscillospira. The presence of the bacteria has been linked to decreases in allergies, asthma and obesity.
Notably, the benefits weren’t just found in babies who lived with pets after they were born. Children of mothers who had pets in the home while pregnant but not after their baby arrived still saw benefits from the increase in bacteria present in their guts. This indicates the bacteria is effectively transferred to the children while in utero via the mother’s environment. Gestation and the first three months of life seem to be an important time for children to develop immunity by building up the presence of the bacteria.
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Asthma diagnoses in the U.S. are growing, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. About one in 10 children had asthma in 2009, and between 2008 and 2010, asthma was more prevalent in children than in adults. The disease costs about $3,300 per person a year, and people with obesity were more likely to have it.
The study’s results were adjusted based upon whether the mother had allergies or asthma, and the results still held.
Seventy percent of the families studied had dogs. Lead author of the study, Anita Kozyrskyj of the University of Alberta, told Time more research is needed to determine if it would be beneficial to stage a “dog intervention” with families expecting children to help the babies build immunity. If results continue to show the benefits, it’s possible doctors could develop a pill that provides the same medical benefits as actually having an animal present, she said.
“Our next step is to pursue the ‘does it matter’ question, to determine the allergy and obesity outcomes of studied infants at ages 1, 3, and 5,” Kozyrskyj said.