Exposure to the dirt and bugs that dogs and cats carry strengthens the immune system of infants, thus reducing respiratory infections, according to a new study to be published in the journal Pediatrics in August.
The study tracked 397 Finnish children born between fall 2002 and spring 2005. Parents kept weekly diaries documenting the status of their child's health, starting when the infants were 9 weeks old. They recorded runny noses, coughs and ear infections as they arose, noting any antibiotics used.
The key findings of the research indicated that infants who grew up with dogs their first year were about 35 percent more likely to be healthy than their petless peers. Dogs as pets decreased the likelihood that babies would develop an ear infection by 44 percent. Babies were 29 percent less likely to be on antibiotics than babies without pets.
"Children who had dog contacts at home were healthier and had less frequent ear infections and needed fewer courses of antibiotics than children who had no dog contacts," said the study's lead author, Dr. Eija Bergroth, a pediatrician who worked at Kuopio University Hospital, in Finland, at the time of the study. "Cat contacts did not seem to have as strong of an impact on infection frequency in multivariate analysis as the dog contacts," Bergroth also said.
While kids with indoor dogs were healthy 72.2 percent of the time, those with dogs indoors fewer than six hours each day were healthy 75.7 percent of the time.
"The researchers offered a possible explanation for the puzzling pattern: Pets that spent more time outdoors brought more dirt into their homes, giving babies more opportunities to encounter it," the Los Angeles Times reported. "That exposure could have caused their immune systems to mature faster than they would have otherwise," they wrote.
Despite the good news, Time reported that it is not requisite that you get a cat or dog if you don't currently have one. "Some previous studies have shown that for children who may have a predisposition to developing allergies or asthma, living with a pet can exacerbate their symptoms."
"Bottom line: you shouldn’t get a pet expressly to protect your child from colds, but you also don’t need to worry about getting rid of Fido out of fear that he may do harm by nuzzling up to your newborn."
Rachel Lowry is a reporter intern for the Deseret News.