Lung Health : Kids with Dogs Develop Fewer Respiratory Infections

Bravetta Hassell

A new study out of Finland suggests kids who have a dog or cat in the home tend to be healthier, developing fewer respiratory infections in their first year of life.

Until now, exposure to dogs and cats -- especially their dander -- has been associated with lower allergy and asthma rates among pet owners, but the recent report opens up something new altogether. It correlates the keeping of a dog or cat with a lowered chance of developing infection.

Scientists think the dirt and debris these pets track indoors might be what's behind this new finding. The child's immune system would be strengthened, "or maybe it's something about the animals themselves," study research Dr. Eija Bergroth told MSNBC.

Dr. Scott Cyrus, chief of staff at Hillcrest Hospital South, said the pets are likely bringing in from the outdoors some bacteria children don't normally encounter. He references a part of the study in which those participants whose pets did not go outside didn't have as great an immunity.

Some researchers caution that other factors may play a role in the study's participants' heightened immunity to respiratory infection. Also, the study looked exclusively at children in rural and suburban areas -- children in urban areas living with pets may have a different experience.

The study followed 397 children from pregnancy through their first year of life and found that those living with dogs developed 31 percent fewer respiratory tract symptoms or infections, 44 percent fewer ear infections and received 29 percent fewer antibiotic prescriptions.

While having a cat around had similar benefits, the extent was not as great as it was for dogs. Michael R. Gomez, chairman of the pediatrics department at the OU School of Community Medicine-Tulsa, thinks the puzzling caveat might have all to do with cats being less sociable than dogs.

In all, the study lends some credibility to the assertion that children are healthier and have fewer allergies when living with pets.

"It's the same process that one would go through when you have a known allergy," Gomez said. "If you have a grass allergy for instance, an allergist would slowly expose you to small, tolerable doses of grass pollen to the point that your immune system gets used to it."

While a very young child isn't typically on the floor with his dog, he does become desensitized to the pet dander largely through his time with parents who are exposed to the pet.

"Over time, (the children) start to interact with the pet and then they start to sleep with the pet and then the pet starts to lick their face, so over time they're exposed to those danders and they kind of develop a natural defense," Gomez said.

Research is always requiring some fine tuning and the recent findings aren't absolute, said Gomez, reminding people to stay abreast with the latest health news.

But experts don't want parents to go rush out and buy a pet to cure all their children's health woes.

"I'm not sure we can truly extrapolate that this is going to fit the United States' make-up but in true form, it is something to look at," Cyrus said.

The study's Bergroth and local physicians Gomez and Cyrus hope people come away with the understanding that parents needn't be afraid of introducing a dog or cat into their home. Talk with the doctor about your pet allergies and those you may have passed down to your kids. But don't be afraid. As Gomez sees it, of greater importance is keeping your young one physically safe around pets.

"We spend a lot more of our anticipatory guidance counseling focused on safety in the sense that we want to avoid ... injury to the face or hands," said Gomez, adding he also counsels parents on the importance of keeping children away from cat litter boxes that harbor harmful bacteria.

Bravetta Hassell 918-581-8316

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