New parents are often worried about the effects dogs and cats have on their babies’ health. After all, don’t our furry friends, no matter how fastidious they may be, track dirt into the house? And it’s not possible to explain the importance of hygiene and disinfectants to them, either. But these very qualities may actually help your baby stay healthier in his first year of life, a recent study suggests. reports that a study published in the journal Pediatrics suggests that living with pets—and dogs in particular—helps protect babies from breathing problems or infections. The researchers studied data on 397 Finnish babies and were able to note that those in pet-owning families were less likely to need antibiotics when sick and in general spent less time suffering from ear infections, coughs, or runny noses.

The authors are quoted as having written, “These results suggest that dog contacts may have a protective effect on respiratory tract infections during the first year of life.” They based their findings on the information from the weekly diaries of parents whose babies were born at the Kuopio University Hospital in Finland as well as a questionnaire the parents were given after the babies’ first year of life.

Findings showed that babies who came into contact with family dogs were healthy for 72 to 76 percent of their parent’s weekly diary reports, while babies who enjoyed no dog contacts were healthy around 65 percent of the time. In addition to this, babies from families who owned dogs reduced their chances of getting ear infections by 44 percent and their chances of needing antibiotics by 29 percent. Researchers saw similar benefits in cat-owning families, but to a lesser degree. They recommended exposing infants to dogs for more than zero but less than six hours each day, as this seemed the optimal formula for reducing babies’ risk of illness.

What could be responsible for this heightened immunity? You might well ask. While they aren’t sure yet, researchers mention that one possible explanation for this would be the very same dirt and germs that dogs track in and that often make new parents nervous. Eija Bergroth, the lead author of the study, told that the exposure to dirt and germs may help your baby’s immune system mature more quickly, making him better able to resist the viruses and bacteria that may cause a respiratory infection. But Bergroth also noted that while this was a possible explanation, it’s also possible that the improvement in immune function might be caused by something else and may not, after all, be a result of exposure to pets.

Still, a number of benefits have been attributed to pet ownership in the past several years, and there appears to be an overall trend toward seeing pets as healthy companions, so you may want to think twice before banishing Fido to the doghouse when you bring your baby home from the hospital.

(Photo by Jason Vasquez via Flickr Creative Commons)

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