New studies out of Finland show that infants raised in a household with a pet, specifically a dog or a cat, are less likely to get sick in their first year. Common illnesses like colds, ear infections and fevers seem less likely for little ones who spend time with man’s best friends. It’s just another brick in the house that germs built.
For years now, there’s been a backlash to the over-sterilized world many of us had gotten used to. It’s the world wear hand sanitizer sits in every purse and disinfectant wipes cover every surface. We continually compare the numbers and variety of germs found on every surface at every point in time, even at microscopic and non-threatening levels. Thanks to this obsession, I know that bathrooms are “cleaner” than kitchens. I know that some dogs have cleaner mouths than humans, but it’s really all about the types of bacteria being transferred. . The office kitchen is the most disgusting, germ-riddled place known to man. There are tons of these little tidbits about germs and their hiding places that I don’t really need to know, yet I do.
But more and more studies have come out showing that exposure to dirt, germs and allergens is good for our growing immune systems. There’s a growing body of research to combat all this germaphobia. And it looks like pets and infant illness is just another heavy correlation to add to the cause. It’s all giving more fuel to the “hygiene hypothesis” fire.
“In many ways, (the study is) saying, if you’re exposed to a natural environment… your immune system recognizes that you don’t fight the normal allergens,” said Dr. T. Bernard Kinane, the chief of the pediatric pulmonary unit at MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston. Animals, with all their rolling in the dirt and ever-present pet dander, add to that natural environment for young kids. They bring in and spread around a lot of the dirt and germs that we actually need to build healthy immune systems.
Obviously pets do more than just share the dirt. They help relieve stress. When kids get older, they teach responsibility for those who depend on you. My daughter’s very first chore at the age of four is feeding our dogs every day. Family pets add to children’s lives in many ways.
Still, this study is an interesting piece in the hygiene puzzle. And while the doctors behind it admit that they, “can’t rule out the possibility that people who own dogs are less likely to get sick for another reason, and not due to protection offered by pets,” that won’t stop this research from adding a little more credibility to dirt’s growing reputation.