“Take your probiotic, wash your hands regularly, and cuddle with your dog daily.” Wouldn’t it be great if this were actual preventative medicine advice? Well, dog lovers—you have permission to get excited. New research is showing how early exposure to dogs can lead to an increase in helpful microbes that help fight off allergies and prevent obesity later in life.
The things to which we are exposed when we’re infants can greatly affect the types of immunities we build up in our systems for later. A study from the University of Alberta showed how babies who came from homes with furry family members had more of two specific microorganisms in their gut that are associated with lower risks for developing allergies and obesity. 70 percent of the families specifically had dogs in their family tree, who carry in and transfer dirt and bacteria from the outside world.
“There’s definitely a critical window of time when gut immunity and microbes co-develop, and when disruptions to the process result in changes to gut immunity,” pediatric epidemiologist and study author Anita Kozyrskyj told Science Daily. The research piggybacked on previous studies which showed a lower incidence for asthma in children who lived in homes with furry friends. The Ruminococcus and Oscillospira bacteria in the current study were found to have “increased twofold when there was a pet in the house” in infants whose fecal matter was studied up to three months after birth.
A fascinating effect observed was how early the influence of having a dog affects the gut microbiome. The researchers found that exposure by the pregnant parent also affected the levels of these specific bacteria in the baby’s gut after birth, even months later. They theorize that, even if the dog in the household went to live with someone else before birth, the baby’s gut health would still reflect enhanced levels of these helpful organisms. The effects were still significant even if there was a C-section birth, antibiotics given before birth or no breastfeeding taking place.
So, what does this mean for the future? Kozyrskyj says she wouldn’t be surprised if these microorganisms were one day sold in pill form to boost immunity, but we might not be there quite yet. At the very least, we can remain confident in the power of inviting pets into our lives. Not only do they provide emotional and physical benefits (daily walks required!), but they can also positively shape our immunity even before we are born.