The Benefits of Pets

How Pets Keep Kids Healthy

No expert on earth -- not even the perky owner of the Happy Tails Grooming Salon a few blocks from my home -- will go along with my theory that there's a direct link between Natalie's relatively small number of ear infections (two) and the number of cats in our home (three). So, okay, I'm probably wrong in thinking that felines lower a child's risk of otitis media. But there is reason to believe that animals can help protect kids from at least some illnesses.

According to a study by Dennis Ownby, MD, a pediatrician and head of the allergy and immunology department of the Medical College of Georgia, in Augusta, having multiple pets actually decreases a child's risk of developing certain allergies. His research tracked a group of 474 babies from birth to about age 7. He found that the children who were exposed to two or more dogs or cats as babies were less than half as likely to develop common allergies as kids who had no pets in the home. Children who had animals had fewer positive skin tests to indoor allergens -- like pet and dust-mite allergens -- and also to outdoor allergens such as ragweed and grass. Other studies have suggested that an early exposure to pets may decrease a child's risk of developing asthma.

No one knows for sure why this is the case, but Dr. Ownby has a theory: "When a child plays with a dog or a cat, the animals usually lick him," he says. "That lick transfers bacteria that live in animals' mouths, and the exposure to the bacteria may change the way the child's immune system responds to other allergens."

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