How Owning a Pet Can Benefit Your Immune System

dog and child sleeping

Story at-a-glance -

  • Pets in childhood come along with physical health benefits, as they may provide protection against eczema and allergies
  • Exposure to a dog during pregnancy was associated with a lower risk of eczema in babies by age 2
  • Exposure to “elements,” such as bacteria, carried by the dogs had a protective effect on children with asthma
  • Not having a dog before the age of 1 year was associated with a fourfold higher risk of eczema at age 4
  • Exposure to a variety of bacteria, parasites and microbes, including those from pets, may help prime the immune system to function optimally, helping it to recognize when a serious immune response is needed and when an exposure is harmless

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

There are many reasons why growing up with a pet is good for children, like providing a constant companion and instilling responsibility while they care for the animal. Pets in childhood, particularly dogs, come along with physical health benefits as well, as these furry family members may provide protection against eczema and allergies.

At one time it was believed that pets in the household may make children more allergy-prone, but now it’s suspected that exposure to dogs (or cats) at birth may not increase the risk of allergic disease, even in high-risk children. In fact, it may actually decrease it.1 Two studies presented at the 2017 American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) Annual Scientific Meeting added further evidence that dogs provide a unique source of protection against this common condition.2

Dogs May Protect Kids From Asthma, Eczema

In the first study, exposure to a dog during pregnancy was associated with a lower risk of eczema in babies by age 2. The protective effect diminished by age 10, but the early protection may make a significant difference in a child’s overall health. “Although eczema is commonly found in infants, many people don’t know there is a progression from eczema to food allergies to nasal allergies and asthma,” the study’s lead author, allergist Dr. Gagandeep Cheema, said in a news release.3

The second study looked at exposure to dogs in children with asthma, analyzing the effects of allergic proteins and other “elements,” such as bacteria, carried by the dogs. In this case, the elements appeared to have a protective effect on asthma, although exposure to the allergen may have worsened the children’s symptoms.

Separate research followed 1-year-old infants at high risk of developing allergies until age 4.4 Not having a dog before the age of 1 year was associated with a fourfold higher risk of eczema at age 4. Cat ownership prior to 1 year of age, however, was associated with an increased eczema risk.

This type of conflicting finding is not unusual when it comes to studying pets and allergies in children. As written in the World Journal of Pediatrics, “Despite the fact that several studies and meta-analyses have been conducted to explore the role of pets in the development of atopy, there are still conflicting pieces of evidence. It seems that there are different effects depending on the type of pets, the time and duration of exposure, and the genetic background of the individual.”5

Why Does Pet Exposure Influence Allergies?

It’s believed that there may be a critical window of development in early life during which exposure to dogs may be beneficial. Exposure to pets while in the womb or up to 3 months of age is linked to higher levels of certain gut microbes linked to a reduced risk of allergies and obesity, for instance.6

This included Ruminococcus, which is linked to a reduction in childhood allergies, and Oscillospira, which is linked to childhood obesity. The levels of these two bacteria were twice as high in babies with exposure to a pet in the home (exposure occurred indirectly, from dog to mother to baby during pregnancy and the first few months of life).

The presence of pets in the home even had the added benefit of reducing the incidence of transmission of vaginal GBS (group B strep) during birth, which causes pneumonia in newborn infants.

Interestingly, in a separate study when adults were given shelter dogs to care for over a three-month period, there was no identified change to their microbiomes (although other emotional and physiological benefits were noted), adding support to the idea that exposure to pets in early life may be most influential on the gut microbiome.7

It also lends support to the hygiene hypothesis, which suggests that lack of exposure to a variety of dirt and germs in early life could be setting kids up for a host of allergic, and other, diseases. On the other hand, exposure to a variety of bacteria, parasites and microbes, including those from pets, may help prime the immune system to function optimally, helping it to recognize when a serious immune response is needed and when an exposure is harmless.

Exposure to Pet Allergens May Prevent Asthma

While some research suggests that, once asthma has developed, reducing exposure to pet allergens may be important, exposure before asthma develops may have a protective effect. Research that included 442 children found that those living in homes with higher levels of cat allergens in the household dust during the first three years of life had a lower risk of asthma at age 7.8

“Our observations imply that exposure to a broad variety of indoor allergens, bacteria and bacterial products early in life may reduce the risk of developing asthma,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. James E. Gern, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.9

More Healthy Benefits for Kids With Pets

Many new parents consider giving away their loyal family pets when a new baby is born, often due to unfounded fears that the pet may be unhealthy for the baby. On the contrary, pet ownership offers many physical and emotional benefits to kids, even above and beyond asthma and eczema. For instance:

  • Children from dog-owning homes have fewer ear infections and respiratory tract infections, and require fewer antibiotics, during their first year of life, perhaps because the exposure stimulates the immune system10
  • Pets are associated with reduced high blood pressure11 in children, as well as better coping strategies among children of deployed U.S. military personnel12
  • Caring for a pet may also encourage self-regulatory behavior in children, which may be particularly beneficial for kids learning to live with chronic diseases like Type 1 diabetes13
  • Children with a pet dog are less likely to suffer from anxiety than children without14
  • Among children, a higher level of attachment to a pet dog is linked with increased physical activity,15 which may help reduce the risk of obesity

While you shouldn’t consider adopting a pet solely based on the potential health benefits they may bring to your family, it’s certainly an added bonus — one that’s only trumped by the unconditional love and devotion that pet ownership offers.

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