Can the bacteria that dog’s carry actually make your baby healthier in the long run? This correlation may seem far-fetched, however, some studies have shown that owning a dog might help better prepare your child’s immune system.
Scientists and researchers have been looking at the variations of microbes, which are microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses, to help study this theory. The idea behind this theory is that children who grow up with a certain types of bacteria in their home are able to build up immunity to various diseases and allergies later in life. Some of these microbes that have been studied are those that are carried by dogs. After two decades of research, it has been shown that children who grow up with dogs may have a lower rate of asthma!
In 2013, researcher Anita Kozyrskyj set out to study this correlation and try to determine why this might be the case. Her team evaluated the microbes present in 24 babies aged 4-month-old as part of the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD)cohort study. 15 of the babies lived in a house with a dog or a cat.
This research showed that the babies living with pets had a greater diversity of microbes in their intestines. Even further, she believes that if an infant grows up with certain bacterias present (such as those on a dog’s fur or brought into the house by their dirty paws), the child’s immune system may grow to better tolerate these bacterias. The immune systems of children who grew up without dogs or cats in their homes wouldn’t recognize these microbes later in life and have a potential adverse reaction. The presence of dirt in the home could theoretically help build up antibodies in developing immune systems.
Does this mean that a cleaner home environment will actually make your baby sick? Not exactly. However, some researchers believe that exposure to SOME dirt, especially during children’s formative years, can be beneficial in warding off diseases later in life. This is not to say that keeping a tidy house and cleaningisn’t important, especially in pet owning households.
Throughout history, humans have lived with animals. The theory is that our bodies are accustomed to “sharing” microbes with animals since we have evolved together through time. Further, looking into the long history of a strong association with dogs and humans, it is possible that we rely on each other for bacteria sharing.
A study by Jack Gilbert, director of the Microbiome Center at the University of Chicago in Illinois studied the microbes from people in the same families who owned dogs and also those who did not. The research showed that the skin microbes of people in a family that owned dogs were more similar to each other. This proves a theory that the dogs were the ones transferring these microbes to each family member.
Currently, there is a citizen-science project called Knight's American Gut Project underway that is looking to further prove this relationship. The study is run by Rob Knight, a professor at the University of California, San Diego who is known for his study of microbes and how they affect your overall health. He gave a TED talk in 2014 on the role of microbes as well as wrote a book called Follow Your Gut: The Enormous Impact of Tiny Microbes.
In 2008, Knight began looking into the transfer of microbes within families, and took great interest in families with dogs. To participate, people pay to have their gut microbes analyzed. They can also pay extra to have the microbes of their family pet analyzed. So far, Knight has used the data from more than 10,000 humans and dozens of dogs to analyze their microbes.
As this study continues, Knight hopes to gather information that can make his finding more medically relevant. Ideally, he would like to find a way to offer people the same benefits of having a dog for microbe sharing and exposure, without actually owning one!
It will be interesting to continue following this study as well as others to see if further proof is found that dogs can help babies develop immunities early in life to certain bacterias. In the meantime, we are just going to continue loving our dogs for their loyalty and affection!