When considering the pros and cons of taking on a family pet, there may be some unseen benefits to add to the pro side of the equation. According to a burgeoning body of research, children who grow up around animals have a lower risk of developing allergies and autoimmune conditions, than those who live in homes free of pet hair and dirt. However, visiting farms or places with pets only on an occasional basis may not confer the same benefits or may even promote reactions. The most likely reason? My own pet topic of bacteria!
The wider the variety of bacteria to which a baby or child is exposed, the more diverse will be the bacteria carried within their gut and on their skin. These bacteria have some very important jobs to do and one of these is to control how the immune system reacts They both control disease causing bacteria, preventing them increasing to levels that could lead to illness and limit reactions to harmless substances in the air or in our food. And continued exposure may help to maintain this protection by promoting the colonies of beneficial bacteria that live inside us.
So should we abandon all that gentle washing and drop our newborn babes into baths of sewage, each night? Emphatically, 'No'. Stroking the dog, picking up the cat and playing outdoors or feeding the pony/lambs/rabbits is quite as far as we need to go with our children. For newborns it is enough to be in close contact with their pet owning mother. It is an incremental exposure to bacteria of a type which can be healthful, day by day, which appears to confer benefits, rather a full onslaught of overwhelming and potentially harmful microbes.
Salo, P. M., & Zeldin, D. C. (2009). Does exposure to cats and dogs decrease the risk of developing allergic sensitization and disease? The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 124(4), 751–752. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2009.08.012
Lynch, ; Wood, R; Boushey, H; Bacharier, L; Bloomberg, G; Kattan, M; O'Connor, G; Sandel, M; Calatroni, A; Matsui, E; Johnson, C; Lyn, H; Visness, C; Jaffee, K; Gergen, P; Gold, D; Wright, R; Fujimura, K; Rauch, M; Busse,W; Gern, J. Effects of early-life exposure to allergens and bacteria on recurrent wheeze and atopy in urban chidren. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology
Volume 134, Issue 3, September 2014, Pages 593–601.e12