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Did you have a treasured animal companion as a child? There’s some psychological evidence that having a pet can help develop a child’s empathy, confidence and compassion. And it’s fun; a loyal companion by your side for the adventures of childhood.

New research suggests the benefits of keeping a dog or cat may extend into unexpected areas – like allergy prevention.

Scientists looked at two cohorts of children between the ages of 7 and 9 years. They were able to find out details about whether the children had been diagnosed with different allergic conditions, like asthma, eczema or allergic rhinoconjunctivitis (sneezing, a running nose and itchy eyes). They also found out whether the children had cats or dogs in their home, and how many. In all, about 1300 Swedish children were studied.

The researchers found that having cats and dogs in the home during a child’s first 12 months did influence their risk of developing allergies later.

About a third of children with no pets in the home reported developing allergies by the time they were nine, while there were no reported allergies in the group of children with five or more cats and dogs.

The relationship was dose-dependent, meaning the more cats and dogs in the family home, the greater the protective effect.

Implications

The authors of the research argue that the allergy protection is evidence of the hygiene hypothesis at work – that a lack of exposure to infectious agents and bugs for children at a young age causes them to be more susceptible to allergic diseases.

They say having pets at home is a ‘mini-farm’ effect, similar to the protective effect farms seem to have on the immune systems of children who grow up in them. Under such an effect, microbes from the animals would train the child’s immune system and dampen later allergic responses. Maybe there is something to your child’s desperate pleading to get a dog!

Last Reviewed: 03/02/2020

© Norman Swan Medical Communications.



References

For reference: Hesselmar, et al. (2018). Pet-keeping in early life reduces the risk of allergy in a dose-dependent fashion. PLoS ONE doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0208472.