Young boy and puppy, asthma and eczema

We have all heard that dogs are man’s best friends. That may be doubly true for children. But unless you are a pediatrician or a microbiologist who has been following this story for a long time, you might be surprised to learn why.

A new study in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that children who are exposed to dogs or farm animals early in life may be less likely to develop asthma as they age. In this cohort study, investigators tracked all children born in Sweden between January, 2001, and December, 2010. Over one million children were included in the study.

Do Puppies and Ponies Protect Kids from Wheezing?

Babies who had dogs in their homes during their first year of life were about 13 percent less likely to have developed asthma by their sixth birthday.

If they grew up on a farm (with cows, horses, pigs, goats or other animals), their odds were even better. Children exposed to farm animals early in life were only about half as likely to develop asthma as their suburban or urban counterparts.

The authors conclude: “This information might be helpful in decision making for families and physicians on the appropriateness and timing of early animal exposure.”

JAMA Pediatrics, online Nov. 2, 2015

Previous Research Linking Dogs at Home and Less Asthma Later:

This is not the first time that a link has been detected between early exposure to dogs or farm animals and a lower likelihood of asthma, allergies or eczema. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (Feb. 24, 2011) demonstrated lower rates of asthma and eczema among kids who grew up on farms in Central Europe. The researchers looked for bacterial DNA in kids’ mattresses or rooms, and found that the farm youngsters were exposed to a wider range of bacteria than urban children.

Why Dogs Make a Difference:

Another study exposed mice (not human children) to dust from homes in which dogs had lived and dust from dog-free homes. Those exposed to doggie dust had changes in their intestinal microbiota, especially a higher prevalence of Lactobacillus johnsonii, that were associated with a reduced risk of asthma-like changes in the lungs (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jan. 14, 2014).

There seems to be growing evidence for the hygiene hypothesis, an idea that making babies’ immune systems respond to a range of bacteria and fungi early in life channels them toward recognizing such potential pathogens and helps keep them from turning to auto-immune attacks. A 2012 Finnish study found that infants from households with dogs were 29 percent less likely to need antibiotics during their first year and 44 percent less likely to have inner ear infections (Pediatrics, July, 2012).

A guest blog describes the health benefits of having a pet-dog or cat. We also had a fascinating discussion with Dr. Daphne Miller about her book, Farmacology, in which one chapter is devoted to evidence for the hygiene hypothesis.

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  1. Lynda

    This article is quite an interesting hypothesis. I grew up on a chicken and turkey ranch and had dogs and cats from when I was born. BUT, I developed asthma at three years old with all the bells and whistles, having trouble breathing, allergies and extreme eczema, with nights that my mom didn’t think I would live through. Among the things I was allergic to was fur and feathers! This was back in the late 1940’s. Now the strange part, at the age of eight years old, I suddenly outgrew the asthma when I moved to the mountains and it never returned, even though I moved on to different places. The only thing I was left with was mild intermittent allergies and mild eczema.

    I have always wondered why the asthma left. After reading this article, I wonder if having the animals did actually help me in the long run, and was the reason I was cured? I’m now 73 years old and still with no signs of asthma.

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