Exposing Babies to Dogs and Cats

Add a dog or cat to your newborn checklist, because a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE discovered what many parents have suspected all along. Children who are exposed to indoor dogs or cats during fetal development and infancy have lesser incidence of food allergies.

The study, which followed more than 66,000 children from Japan, looked at a range of children and their living environments, found that pet-free homes rendered children with the most allergies.

Roughly 22% of children studied were exposed to dogs or cats (or both) during fetal development. Those children had a significantly reduced risk of food allergies until three years old. Exposure to indoor dogs was found to reduce the occurrence of milk, egg and nut allergies. Exposure to indoor cats was found to reduce the occurrence of egg, soy and wheat allergies.

The study wasn’t good for all pet ownership though and resulted in some very surprising findings. Children exposed to pet hamsters actually had a greater occurrence of nut allergies, something researchers are speculating could be house dust-related.

Of course, this means any correlation between indoor pet exposure and future food allergies could depend on the species and food. The authors of the study caution that the exact mechanism or trigger for the added allergy protection remains unknown, but it seems promising.

And this isn’t the only study suggesting that pets have a protective effect on infant and child allergies. Another study explored the connection between children having pet dogs and reduced egg allergies by age one. Yet another study displayed a whopping 90% reduction in the chance food allergies for infants who lived with dogs.

“Living with pets exposes both parents and children to a range of microbes that might not normally be inside our homes,” explains Dan Jacobson, a pediatrician based in Chicago, Illinois. “Inhaling dander and touching the fur and skin of dogs and cats is likely bolstering Mom’s immune system, which if she’s pregnant, is easily passed along to the baby. And if Mom chooses to breastfeed for even a short while? More of that protection is passed on.”

No pets at home? You may still be able to offer some added allergy protection through an alternate route, says Jacobson.

“Research seems to be pointing to a gut microbiome protection and allergy-fighting trigger with pet exposure. While this may seem like the clearest-cut path, it doesn’t mean you have to run out and buy a puppy immediately. There’s additional research showing that probiotics can do everything from reducing dairy allergies to stopping excess baby gas.”

Not sure which probiotics to try? “There are a lot of over the counter brands that could work, but it’s important to speak with your own pediatrician first. And if you’re breastfeeding, you’re already passing some of your own microbiome to your baby and may not need any supplementation.”

“And if you have toddlers or bigger kids at home, you can still offer them some protective benefits by keeping naturally fermented and probiotic foods in their diets. Look for or make fresh baby food that has probiotic cultures, add unsweetened whole milk yogurt to smoothies or try adding a bit of kimchi to a grilled cheese.”

Or you could just totally cave in and adopt a totally adorable pet.

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