July 10 Dogs are no longer just man's best
friend - the furry family members may also protect infants
against breathing problems and infections, according to a
Researchers, whose report appeared in the journal
Pediatrics, found that Finnish babies who lived with a dog - or,
to a lesser extent, a cat - spent fewer weeks with ear
infections, coughs or runny noses. They were also less likely to
need antibiotics than infants in pet-free homes.
"These results suggest that dog contacts may have a
protective effect on respiratory tract infections during the
first year of life," wrote lead author Eija Bergroth, at Kuopio
University Hospital in Finland, and colleagues.
"Our findings support the theory that during the first year
of life, animal contacts are important, possibly leading to
better resistance to infectious respiratory illnesses during
The researchers studied 397 infants who were born at their
hospital between September 2002 and May 2005 for their first
year. Parents filled out weekly diaries starting when the child
was nine weeks old, recording information on the babies' health
as well as their contact with cats and dogs.
Based on those diaries and a year-end questionnaire, the
researchers determined that 35 percent of the children spent the
majority of their first year with a pet dog and 24 percent in a
home with a cat.
Before their first birthday, 285 of the babies had at least
one fever, 157 had an ear infection, 335 had a cough, 128
wheezed, 284 got stuffy or runny noses and 189 needed to take
antibiotics at some point, parents reported.
The researchers found that contact with dogs, more than
cats, was tied to fewer weeks of sickness for babies.
For example, infants with no dog contact at home were
healthy for 65 percent of parents' weekly diary reports. That
compared to between 72 and 76 percent for those who had a dog at
Babies in dog-owning families were also 44 percent less
likely to get inner ear infections and 29 percent less likely to
Infants who spent more than zero but fewer than six hours
per day at home with a dog were the least likely to get sick,
the researchers said.
"A possible explanation for this interesting finding might
be that the amount of dirt brought inside the home by dogs could
be higher in these families because (the dog) spent more time
outdoors," the researchers wrote.
Bergroth told Reuters Health in an email that the dirt and
germs a dog brings into the house may cause a child's immune
system to mature faster, which makes it better at defending
against viruses and bacteria that cause respiratory problems.
Experts said that while not all research agrees that
exposure to dogs and cats helps protect children against
breathing problems, there is an overall trend in that direction.
Bergroth also warned that the research couldn't rule out the
possiblity that people who owned dogs were less likely to get
sick for another reason, and not due to protection offered by
(Reporting from New York by Andrew Seaman at Reuters Health;
editing by Elaine Lies and Bob Tourtellotte)