Monica E. Hamburg
MD – Pediatrics
Most children share a deep love and bond with their pets. And these adorable furry friends do more than offer companionship, teach responsibility, and bring joy to your home – they can help boost children’s immune systems, too.
Immune response: allergens, eczema, infections
While you may be hesitant to let your dog lick your baby’s face, these dog kisses can help protect your child from illness.
Finnish researchers have found that pets, especially dogs, have a protective effect on children’s airways. Babies who have early contact with cats or dogs are 30% less likely to get colds, ear infections and coughs than children who are not exposed to animals.
A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that children who had a dog in their first year of life were 13% less likely to develop asthma than children in households without a dog. Children who grow up with pets are also less likely to develop certain allergies and eczema.
Why animals help our immune system
When you leave your dog outside, he may burrow in the dirt, sniff his surroundings, chase animals, and roll around in the grass before returning home. While it can be a drag for some parents, when a pet introduces germs into our homes on their paws, fur, and muzzle, those germs benefit the human microbiome and help us stay healthier.
Outdoor cats that spend time at home also offer health benefits, although they are a bit more picky and tend to pick up fewer germs than dogs. Indoor cats and other pets may not be as beneficial for the immune system, but they are wonderful for providing companionship and reducing stress.
A few minutes of petting an animal can also boost your child’s immunity. One study found that petting a dog for just 18 minutes can increase the levels of Immunoglobulin A (IgA) in our saliva, an antibody that helps protect against infection.
Never too young
Babies benefit from being around pets primarily from birth, but it is not possible for every family to have a pet when their children are infants. Being around pets offers health benefits from infancy through adulthood, so having a family pet is great at any age.
Boosting your pet’s immunity will happen as soon as you bring the pet into your home. But you should only have a pet when you are ready to take on the responsibility.
Other health benefits of having pets
In addition to boosting children’s immune systems, the human-animal bond also provides your children with other health benefits.
â Mental health. Keeping pets can relieve anxiety and reduce stress.
â Physical activity. Taking your pet for a hike, walk, or run is a great way to fit daily exercise into your child’s schedule.
â Self-esteem. When your pet gives your child unconditional love, it can boost your child’s self-esteem. Being responsible for the care of the animal also develops a sense of accomplishment and responsibility in young children.
â Socialization. Having a pet can improve your child’s social and emotional skills. A recent study found that toddlers with dogs were 30% less likely to have behavioral and peer problems than families without dogs.
Before you have a pet
It is essential to teach babies and children about animal safety. Show your children how to interact responsibly with pets to avoid accidents and injuries. Do not leave an infant or small child unattended with a dog for the safety of both.