- Exposure to dogs or cats during fetal development or early infancy reduced the likelihood of developing a food allergy later in life by about 14%, according to a study.
- Keeping dogs indoors and being exposed to them during both fetal development and infancy is beneficial.
Are you a new parent concerned about your child’s risk of developing food allergies? Here’s some good news – a recent study has shown that having cats or dogs in the home can significantly lower this risk! And the best part? This benefit applies even if the exposure happens during fetal development while the pregnant mother is living with pets.
Read on for more information about this exciting discovery.
The study demonstrated a statistically significant but modest effect: Exposure to dogs or cats during fetal development or early infancy reduced the likelihood of developing a food allergy later in life by roughly 14%. The greatest benefit was observed when dogs were kept inside, and the exposure occurred during both fetal development and infancy.
Although earlier studies produced similar findings, this recent study from Japan, which involved over 65,000 infants and their parents, is the largest to date. Nonetheless, like previous studies, this one failed to demonstrate a causal relationship between pet ownership and the reduced risk of food allergies. Other factors associated with owning a pet, such as genetics or lifestyle, could be the true cause of the apparent correlation.
According to pediatricians specializing in allergies, the study results seem to reassure pet owners.
James Gern, a professor and chief of the Division of Allergy, Immunology, and Rheumatology at the University of Wisconsin, confirmed that the study’s findings align with previous research showing that exposure to dogs and cats can reduce the risk of food allergies.
Gern also stated that numerous studies suggest that contact with pets can offer various health benefits for children, such as lower rates of atopic dermatitis, respiratory allergies, wheezing illnesses, asthma, and increased psychological well-being.
The study, led by Hisao Okabe of the department of pediatrics at the Fukushima Medical University, analyzed data from the Japan Environment and Children’s Study. The researchers assessed the children’s risk of developing food allergies up to the age of three using medical records and self-administered questionnaires. The research findings were published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE.
In their study, Okabe and colleagues investigated the relationship between pet ownership and various food allergies, both overall and specific. They discovered that owning a dog reduced the risk of egg, milk, and nut allergies, while owning a cat reduced the risk of egg, wheat, and soybean allergies.
The researchers also examined the possible effects of other pets, such as turtles, hamsters, and birds, on food allergies. However, no significant association was found between exposure to these animals and food allergies, except for a 93 percent increase in the risk of nut allergies with hamster ownership. This association could be a statistical fluke because only some families kept hamsters.
The study’s findings on the reduced risk of developing food allergies due to dog ownership were less significant than those in a 2019 paper. The earlier study directly tested young children for food allergies instead of relying on parents’ questionnaires and found that living with dogs decreased the likelihood of developing a food allergy by an extraordinary 90 percent.
Additionally, the study found that the more dogs a family owned, the better the protection against food allergies. For instance, none of the infants who lived with at least two dogs developed a food allergy.
Tom Marrs, director of the Allergy Academy at King’s College London and senior author of the earlier study, pointed out that although only 7 percent of children in the UK have a confirmed food allergy, up to a quarter of parents claim their children suffer from one. He suggested that the study from Japan would have benefitted from directly testing young children with food challenges. Additionally, Marrs mentioned that the study could not confirm whether the pets themselves or something about the pet owners caused the reduced likelihood of food allergies.
Marrs explained that families with an allergy history are likelier to have parents with pet dander allergies. As a result, these parents are less likely to get pets for their children, which may account for the inverse relationship between pets and allergies. Therefore, the lower odds of food allergies in children living with pets may be due to the allergic parents avoiding pets to prevent their own allergic reactions.
Despite some limitations, the study’s results align with the conclusions of numerous previous studies highlighting the advantages of having pets.
According to Gern, the benefits of being around animals have been shown in various situations, including living with pets (as in this study), being exposed to farm animals (in Central Europe, Amish communities, and Wisconsin dairy farms), and even encountering pests (such as mice and cockroaches) in underprivileged urban homes. These studies suggest that a biodiverse environment promotes healthy children and immune development.