We know dogs make us happy, but as an increasing number of scientific studies are demonstrating, they also make us — and our children — healthier. A 2010 study in the UK found that children who lived with dogs spent 10 minutes more each day engaged in physical activity than did those in dog-free homes; the researchers even tallied up the extra number of steps they took (360, on average). Now, two studies published earlier this year point to some even more salubrious effects of life with dogs, especially for very young children.
One, conducted at Kuopio University Hospital in Finland, concentrated on infants during their first year, and investigated the effect of contact with dogs on the “frequency of respiratory symptoms and infections” during that period. Information about the length of time a dog spent indoors was also gathered, and turned out to be one of the key indicators.
The results were eye-opening. Children with dogs at home were healthier overall, had fewer infectious respiratory problems, fewer ear infections and were less likely to require antibiotics. Researchers considered these results supportive of the theory that children who live with dogs during their early years have better resistance throughout childhood. They also found that the effect was greater if the dog spent fewer than six hours inside, possibly because the longer dogs are outdoors, the more dirt they bring inside with them. The more dirt, the more “bacterial diversity.” This diversity is thought to have a protective influence by helping the child’s immune system to mature — that is, respond more effectively to infectious agents.
A study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, found that living with dogs may prevent children from developing asthma. Mice fed a solution containing dust from homes with dogs developed a resistance to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a childhood airway infectious agent. RSV, which is common in infants, is linked to a higher risk of childhood asthma. According to Dr. Susan Lynch of the study team, “Exposing the gastrointestinal tract to pet dust and other microbes early in life prepares it to respond appropriately to a variety of invaders. But since our modern lifestyles involve living in immaculate houses, our immune systems often overreact instead.” Early childhood is a critical period for developing protection against allergies and asthma, and exposure to pets can help.
All in all, these studies are proving that dogs, especially those dirty ones, are not only important family members, but also make our children healthier. And in that regard, they may also have a positive impact on health care costs. Adopt a dog, heal a child!
Photograph by Brett Casadonte