Science: Pets lead to healthier babies

May 02, 2017

For many families, adopting a pet provides learning opportunities for all ages. Young children learn about responsibility as they care for the animal, and about friendship and loyalty as they grow closer to their beloved pet. But now science shows that some of the benefits of pet ownership may not just be social; they may be health related.

Researchers from the University of Alberta in Canada asked more than 700 parents about what types of pets they owned both during pregnancy and 3 months after childbirth. Of these pets, around 70% were dogs. Their study found that babies who had been exposed to pets had higher levels of Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, two beneficial bacteria associated with a lower risk for allergies and obesity.

“The abundance of these two bacteria were increased twofold when there was a pet in the house,” said Anita Kozyrskyi, the pediatric epidemiologist who led the research team. She added that pet exposure was even shown to affect the gut microbiome from the pet, to the mother, to the unborn baby, during pregnancy. As a result, the microbiome exchange took place even if the baby and animal never came into direct contact.

Birth scenarios that may reduce immunity, such as C-sections, the use of antibiotics during birth and a lack of breastfeeding, did not prevent the beneficial exchange from happening.

The study also found that prenatal exposure to pets also reduces the risk that mothers pass group B strep (GBS) to babies during delivery. GBS is linked to sepsis, meningitis and pneumonia.

As with all things, timing is key. Pet exposure has benefits mainly to unborn and very young babies.

“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,” said Kozyrskyi.

The study may lead to new pharmaceuticals; a “dog in a pill” if you will.

“It’s not far-fetched that the pharmaceutical industry will try to create a supplement of these microbiomes, much like what was done with probiotics,” said Kozyrskyi.