New research suggests that having a dog may reduce the risk of asthma, and other studies have shown that children with pets have fewer colds. But there are downsides.
My children are unlikely to read this, which is lucky for me, because it would give them ammunition for the ongoing “Can we get a dog or a cat?” argument. Because the research suggests – damn it – that having one is good for children. A study published last week in JAMA Pediatrics shows that children who had a dog in their first year of life were 13% less likely to develop asthma by the time they were six than those from dog-free households.
The study, which used data from a Swedish registry of more than 1 million children, found that children growing up on farms with animals had a 50% reduction in their risk of asthma at school age. These results fit with the “hygiene” hypothesis that children are more likely to develop allergies if they are brought up in super-clean environments. This study allowed for other factors that increase the risk of asthma (for example, the risk was not reduced if a parent had the condition), but can still show only an association.
It is estimated that 46% of households in the UK have pets, with dogs and then cats the most common animals. The evidence on the benefit of having cats in reducing allergies is inconsistent, but some research shows that pets make children healthier. A study of 397 Finnish babies published in the journal Pediatrics in 2012 found that, during their first year of life, those whose parents had dogs or cats had fewer colds and ear infections and needed fewer courses of antibiotics than those from homes without pets. Dogs offered more protection than cats. Pets who spent less than six hours a day in the house had the most beneficial effect: the researchers think this is because they brought in more dirt from outside to stimulate the babies’ immune systems.
There is also some evidence that having a pet may make children feel more popular and be more empathic. Older studies (carried out before the advent of social media) found that pets increased the amount of time families spent together as well as the amount of “fun” they had.
Pets can potentially help children to learn about responsibility, take more exercise (if you get a dog) and cope with loss – who can forget when their family pet got run over?
However, the research for health benefits is not strong enough on its own to justify a pet in our home. Both dogs and cats have a tendency to poo (my main objection), and they can carry worms or other parasites. Also, while I couldn’t find any studies, it seems that anecdotally, few children look after the animals they nagged their parents for.