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Early exposure to furry pets can help prevent allergies and obesity

Infants exposed to dogs have higher levels of two important microbes, study finds

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In addition to keeping the house clean of fallen Cheerios, the family dog may also be a boon to babies’ health. Man’s best friend can help protect kids from allergies and obesity later in life, a new study suggests.

Research conducted at the University of Alberta showed that infants from families with pets, especially dogs, had higher levels of two types of gut microbes associated with lower risks of obesity and allergic disease.

According to the study's lead author Anita Kozyrskyj, there’s a “critical window of time when gut immunity and microbes co-develop, and when disruptions to the process result in changes to gut immunity.”

Early immunity boost

Findings from the study suggest that exposing infants to the dirt and bacteria on a dog’s fur and paws can help boost their immunity, even if parents only had the dog while the mother was pregnant.

The study of 746 infants builds upon the work of earlier research that found that children who grow up with dogs have lower rates of asthma, said Kozyrskyj.

The new research showed that babies who were exposed to pets either in the womb or in their first three months of life had higher levels of Ruminococcus and Oscillospira -- bacteria which have been linked to reducing allergies and obesity in children.

“The abundance of these bacteria were increased twofold when there was a pet in the house,” said Kozyrskyj, who explained that the microbes train the immune system to react to harmful entities like pathogenic microbes and not react to helpful microbes and food nutrients.

Dog in a pill?  

Beyond showing that furry pets can increase microbes associated with obesity and allergy prevention, the study found that having at least one pet in the house could reduce a mother's risk of transmitting a group-B strep infection to her child during birth.

The researchers say it’s too soon to tell how this finding will play out, but Kozyrskyj believes we could see “dog in a pill” become used as a preventive tool for allergies and obesity in the future.

"It's not far-fetched that the pharmaceutical industry will try to create a supplement of these microbiomes, much like was done with probiotics," she said.

The full study is published in the journal Microbiome.

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