Parents of newborns sometimes consider giving pets away when a newborn arrives, worried that dirt and dander from their pet will put the baby at greater risk of infections. A Finnish study proved that these parents' concerns are largely unwarranted.
Compared to babies in pet-free homes, babies born in dog and cat-friendly households have fewer respiratory tract infections, are less likely to develop colds and ear infections, and need fewer antibiotics.
Eija Bergroth, a pediatrician at Kuopio University Hospital in Finland, led the study with five other researches between 2002 and 2005. The Finnish researchers followed 397 Finnish children from pregnancy through age 3. Parents were required to provide information about contact with dogs and cats and track their child’s illnesses and uses of antibiotics.
Overall, children who grew up in households with dogs were 44% less likely to develop ear infections and 29% less likely to use antibiotics than children who were raised in pet-free homes. Having a cat around was also linked to better baby health, but the effect was significantly weaker.
How does introducing a newborn to more bacteria help? Researchers believe that exposing newborn to greater levels of bacteria and pet dander helps mature and strengthen their still-developing immune systems. By the time the baby is older, he or she has already been exposed to a spectrum of bacteria and has the ability to better fend off other forms of bacteria and viruses.
According to Dr. Eija Bergroth, “we think the exposure to pets somehow matures the immune system so when the child meets the microbes, he might be better prepared for them."
The 2012 findings support earlier studies analyzing children’s health and the presence of animals. For instance, one study found that children raised on farms were less likely to develop asthma. Another confirmed that babies raised in the presence of pets are less likely to develop allergies as adults.
View the published research paper here