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The Family Pet May Help Kids Immune Systems In A Surprising Way

Having pets benefits kids in more ways than one, according to a new study.

A baby with a puppy.
Tomas Rodriguez/Corbis/Getty Images

We don’t deserve our pets. Not only do our four-legged best friends provide companionship, protection, and unconditional love, but it also turns out they’re pretty good for the health of our kids, especially when it comes to warding off food allergies, according to a new study. Pet dander allergies are, of course, a very real thing, but new research proves that kids who are exposed to family dogs or cats during gestation are less likely to develop food allergies than their pet-less peers.

Food allergies have become more and more common across industrialized countries. One study found that in the U.S., hospital visits for food allergies increased by 300% between 1993 to 2006. Current estimates show that more than 10% of kids in industrialized countries develop allergies to foods such as eggs, dairy, nuts, wheat, or soybeans. These allergies can be life-threatening and cause significant stress to those affected and their families, and no one knows why they have become so prevalent.

But perhaps — at least according to new research — there could be a salve in the form of a dog or a cat. A research team in Japan led by Fukushima Regional Center examined data collected from 66,215 infants for the Japan Environment and Children’s Study. Twenty-two percent of these children were exposed to pets during the fetal period.

The children who were during gestation exposed to indoor dogs showed fewer incidences of food allergies, specifically egg, milk, and nut allergies. Kids who had been exposed to indoor cats during gestation were less likely to have egg, wheat, and soybean allergies.

Ironically — and perhaps most interestingly — those who were exposed to hamsters were actually more likely to have nut allergies than other children.

It is important to note that the data for the food allergy study was self-reported by participating families. Self-reported data is subjective and less reliable than lab-collected data. The research team also says more research is necessary to determine the causative factor behind the findings, as they could only determine that a link is present and not the mechanism behind the lack of food allergies.

Regardless, this study adds to an existing body of evidence that pets are really good for kids. Previous studies have shown that kids who grow up with dogs are not only less likely to develop behavior problems, but that they also have higher self-esteem and more empathy, improved cognitive skills and social skills, and less stress. But wait, there’s more: Kids who do pet-related chores also show more advanced critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Additionally, kids who grow up with dogs move more than kids who do not. Dog ownership promotes physical activity at a time when sedentary lifestyles are ubiquitous.