There are many ways in which pets enrich our lives. Their positive impact on mental health has been well-publicised. But now a Canadian study has indicated that furry pets can also boost the bacterial health of babies. This could help to reduce allergies and the tendency to gain weight.
Boosting Good Bacteria
The researchers found a link between pet ownership and an increased diversity of good bacteria in the gut. However, they did not look into the long-term outcomes and so the benefits of pets are implied by the study rather than proven.
Gut bacteria are now known to play an important role in human health. It is not unreasonable to suppose that furry pets could boost infant immunity.
The study was carried out by researchers from several institutes including the University of Toronto, the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia. It involved the analysis of a group of 753 infants to establish whether exposure to pets whilst in the womb and after birth would impact their gut bacteria.
The results of the study must be treated with some caution as there are many lifestyle factors which can influence a baby’s gut bacteria. These include whether or not they are breast-fed. The study wasn’t able to rule these factors out when interpreting the results.
Mothers were given a questionnaire about pet ownership during their second or third trimester of pregnancy and for the three months after birth. Gut bacteria in faecal samples were analysed. Data was collected regarding other influences on bacteria including the mode of the babies’ deliveries, drugs taken by the mother, race, maternal asthma, the presence of siblings and breastfeeding.
The study found that overall, the composition of gut bacteria was richer and more diverse in infants who had been exposed to pets during both the prenatal and postnatal period. Two bacteria, ruminococcus and oscillospira were especially prevalent. Previous research has linked each of these strains to improved gut health. The levels of bacteria were found to have been increased independently of other factors.
Further Research Required
The study only looked at children up to 3 months of age. It would be useful to research what happens as they grow. Are those levels of bacteria maintained? Do children exposed to pets really have better outcomes over the longer term? The findings do at least pave the way for more in-depth research.
In the meantime, parents are not advised to thrust pets on their youngsters in order to reduce their allergies and weight gain! But this in an interesting area of scientific research which could eventually yield some very important findings. Could it be that cats and dogs prevent asthma? Are moggies and pooches helping in the fight against obesity?