Monica E. Hamburgh
MD – Pediatrics
Most children share a deep love and bond with their family pets. And these adorable furry friends do more than offer companionship, teach responsibility and bring joy to your home — they can help boost children’s immune systems, too.
Immune Response: Allergens, Eczema, Infections
Though you may hesitate to let your dog lick your baby’s face, these doggy kisses may help protect your child from getting sick.
Researchers in Finland found that family pets — dogs in particular — have a protective effect on children’s respiratory tracts. Babies who have early contact with cats or dogs are 30 percent less likely to experience colds, ear infections and coughs than children who are not exposed to animals.
A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that children who had a dog in their first year of life were 13 percent less likely to develop asthma than children from dog-free households. Children who grow up with pets also have a decreased chance of developing certain allergies and eczema.
Why Pets Help Our Immune System
When you let your dog outside, they may dig in the dirt, sniff their environment, chase animals and roll in the grass before coming back inside your home. Though this may be a turnoff for some parents, when a pet brings germs into our homes on their paws, fur and snouts, these germs benefit the human microbiome and help keep us healthier.
Outdoor cats who spend time in the home also offer health benefits, though they are a little more fastidious and tend to track fewer germs than dogs. Indoor cats and other pets may not be as beneficial to the immune system, but they are wonderful for providing companionship and reducing stress.
A few minutes of petting an animal can give your child an immunity boost, too. One study found that petting a dog for only 18 minutes can raise immunoglobulin A (IgA) levels in our saliva, an antibody that helps protect against infection.
Never Too Young
Babies benefit from being around pets essentially from birth, but it isn’t feasible for every family to have a pet when their children are infants. Being around pets offers health benefits from infancy to adulthood, so having a family pet is great at any age.
The immunity boost your pet provides will happen as soon as you introduce the pet into your home. But you should get a pet only when you are ready for the responsibility.
Other Health Benefits of Having Pets
In addition to boosting children’s immune systems, the bond between human and animal offers your children other health benefits, too.
● Mental health. Animal companionship can ease anxiety and reduce stress.
● Physical activity. Taking your family pet for a hike, walk or run is a great way to fit daily exercise into your child’s schedule.
● Self-esteem. When your pet gives your child unconditional love, this can boost your child’s self-esteem. Being responsible for the pet’s care also develops a sense of accomplishment and responsibility in young children.
● Socialization. Having a family pet can improve your child’s social and emotional skills. A recent study found that toddlers with dogs were 30 percent less likely to have behavior and peer problems compared to families without dogs.
Before You Get a Pet
It’s essential to teach babies and children animal safety. Show your children how to responsibly interact with pets to avoid accidents and injury. Don’t leave a baby or small child unattended with a dog for the safety of both.