Dogs Help Prevent Childhood Diseases, Study Finds

Ask not if you should get a dog. Ask if your baby should be itchy.

Having a dog before a baby doesn’t just teach prospective parents how to pick up another creature’s crap. Dogs could protect children from eczema and asthma, according to two new studies due to be presented this week at the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. The findings suggest that dogs may play a protective role throughout the first decade of childhood, even when kids are allergic to dogs. So go ahead and get lost in those puppy dog eyes.

“Although eczema is commonly found in infants, many people don’t know there is a progression from eczema to food allergies to nasal allergies and asthma,” said Gagandeep Cheema, allergist and author of one of the two studies, in a statement. “We wanted to know if there was a protective effect in having a dog that slowed down that progress.”

Previous studies have shown that growing up with dogs may reduce a kid’s risk for allergies and obesity, because dogs are simply crawling with good bacteria. But puppies aren’t just probiotics. Other research indicates that dogs might protect children from colds and ear infections, as well. There’s even evidence that dogs can help facilitate visual development in babies by teaching them to to distinguish between human and animal faces. Scientifically speaking, they’re good boys and girls.

Building on this pro-dog body of research, Cheema and colleagues looked at 782 mother-child pairs who were exposed to one or more pups indoors for at least one hour per day during pregnancy. Results revealed that a mother’s exposure to dogs before birth was significantly associated with a lower risk of eczema by the time her child turned two, but that the protective effects seemed to wear off around age 10 (Although by that time you’ll probably love that mutt too much to take him back).

For the second study, researchers analyzed the effects of dog exposure on 180 children who were already diagnosed with asthma. They split the children into two groups. The first group was exposed to an allergen that affects kids who are allergic to dogs. The other group was exposed to other doggy elements, such as bacteria that dogs often carry. The findings suggested that these dog bacteria lessened the symptoms of asthma, but that that dog allergens just made things worse.

“There seems to be a protective effect on asthma of non-allergen dog-associated exposures, and a harmful effect of allergen exposure,” study coauthor Po-Yang Tsou of Johns Hopkins University said in a statement. “However, dog allergen exposure remains a major concern for kids who are allergic to dogs.” Still, the ACAAI does not discourage families with allergies from pet ownership, and instead encourages taking proper precautions, such as having kids wash their hands regularly, keeping dogs out of their bedroom, and bathing them regularly to reduce those allergens.

Both authors admit that they’re not sure why dogs would have a protective effect when it comes to allergies and asthma in kids, but the body of research suggests that you should probably just get the damn dog already. Scientists can figure out the mechanism while you’re playing fetch at the park.