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Anyone who has ever witnessed the interaction between a child and his pet knows that the two share a special bond. What begins in infancy as a simple fascination with a beloved dog or cat often blossoms into an enduring friendship between animal and child – despite the fact that young tots often show their affection by squeezing their furry friends too hard or petting too roughly. Still, parents worry about the effect that pets can have on their kiddos; after all, even though they are loved, pets are still animals, and animals can bite, scratch, fight, and carry bacteria and germs. If you’re concerned that your four-legged family member may be sharing more than his affection, never fear: plenty of research has shown that the shared affection between Fido and your little one is not only adorable, but can help boost your tot's immunity.
A 2012 study published in "Pediatrics," the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, indicated that children who had dogs and cats in the home during their first year of life tended to be healthier than those who didn't. In fact, children followed in the study tended to have fewer respiratory-tract symptoms and infections than children who did not live with pets. "It appears that early indoor pet exposure, even prenatally (before birth), can decrease the risk of the development of allergies in children. This decreased risk appears related to the decreased production of a particular antibody, called IgE, which is involved in all allergic conditions," says Dr. Stacey Weiland, an internist and gastroenterologist from Evergreen, Colorado. Weiland says that scientists suggest that these immunity-boosting benefits are attributed to the fact that children with pets are exposed to different types of bacteria and dust components in the home, particularly during their first year of life, when their immune systems are still being developed.
If the multi-million-dollar hand-sanitizer industry is any indication, we are a nation obsessed with cleanliness. Armed with a plethora of antibacterial products, anxious parents are often seen whipping out gels, wipes and creams after their tot has run amok at a playground or played catch with the family dog. Of course, moms want to protect their kiddos from germs, and should use common sense when it comes to keeping their kids clean and healthy. However, antibacterial hypervigilance can actually hurt a child's immunity and impede the immune-system-boosting properties that interactions with pets provide. "Interestingly, it is the Western world being 'too clean' that seems to increase the risk of the development of asthma and allergic rhinitis in children who were not exposed to enough allergens early in life," says Weiland, who has three children and is also a dog owner. "The body's immune system seems to need to be exposed to a wide variety of pathogens early on in order to get it working properly. If you live in too clean an environment, the immune system seems to almost 'fall asleep' and then wake up inappropriately later in life to attack the person's own GI tract. Similarly, it appears that having pets exposes a child not only to the various allergen proteins associated with the particular species of pet itself but to a multitude of bacteria found in the environment in general. This gets the child's immune system working properly at an early age, and keeps it from inappropriately overreacting in the form of allergies later," she says.
The study published in "Pediatrics" reported another immunity-boosting benefit of pet ownership: children who were exposed to pets in the home tended to need fewer antibiotics than their non-pet-owning counterparts. This is especially important because antibiotic resistance – which occurs because of antibiotic overuse – has become a widespread concern. "If a child takes an antibiotic for a virus, it will make him more vulnerable for infections that are floating in the air," says Sara Chana Silverstein, a New York-based homeopath, herbalist, and mother of seven. "There are viruses and bacteria in the air all the time," she explains. "Children with strong immune systems will not catch the viruses that float in the air, but kids with a compromised immune system will get sick from them. Being exposed to pets is actually very healthy for children." Weiland also has seen a personal benefit of pet ownership in her own home. "We had two dogs in the house when all three of my children were born," she recalls. "We allowed complete exposure to our pets from the day the kids came home from the hospital. I actually have a history of asthma and eczema, and none of my children have gotten either."
Like any relationship, the one between your baby and your pet needs to be nurtured slowly. Because they’re often the first "baby" of the family, pets can become jealous of your wee one and react in a less-than-friendly manner. Yes, you want your children to benefit from their pets' immune-boosting potential, but you should be cautious about allowing your tot to spend time with the family pet. It is critical that parents take these introductions slowly says veterinarian Jules Benson, vice president of veterinary services at Petplan Pet Insurance. "Remember, it is often just as much of a learning experience for the pet," he says. "Sit with the baby on your lap and invite the pet to come sniff and look, but keep 'meetings' short in the beginning. Praise good behavior, and gradually lengthen the time spent together." After all, even if they're not old enough to handle the pet by themselves, children can still benefit from simple exposure. "The most important piece of the equation is that all time spent together must be supervised, particularly as the child gets older and begins to sit up, crawl and walk," says Benson. "Never leave a child and a pet alone together for any amount of time, to avoid accidents or injuries to the child or pet."