THE QUESTION Colds and other respiratory ailments are common in infants, with day-care attendance, siblings’ illnesses and exposure to smoking thought to be among the contributing factors. Might the presence of pets in the house make a difference as well?
THIS STUDY analyzed data on 397 infants from birth to their first birthday. In that year, about 72 percent of the children had a fever, 40 percent had an ear infection, 97 percent had nasal congestion, 84 percent had a cough and 32 percent had wheezing. Nearly half of the children were given antibiotics in their first year. About two-thirds of the infants had a dog at home at least part of the time, and a third had a cat. Children with a household pet, especially a dog, were considered healthier overall, had fewer respiratory-tract symptoms and fewer ear infections and were given antibiotics less often than those without a pet. Infants whose family dog spent up to six hours a day in the house had the best health history. They were 62 percent less likely to have an ear infection and about half as likely to have needed antibiotics, for example.
WHO MAY BE AFFECTED? Families that include young children. Studies have shown that having pets can help people lower their blood pressure and cholesterol levels, feel less lonely and make them more apt to exercise and socialize. Pets also can carry infections, and studies have shown that pet dander can cause problems for people with allergies or asthma.
CAVEATS Data on the infants’ health problems came from their parents’ responses on weekly questionnaires. The study did not determine the reason for the apparent benefit of living with a pet, but the researchers theorized that exposure to pets at a very young age spurred development of the children’s immune systems. Why exposure to cats had less impact than exposure to dogs also was not determined.
FIND THIS STUDY July 9 online issue of Pediatrics (www.pediatrics.org).
The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals. Nonetheless, conclusive evidence about a treatment's effectiveness is rarely found in a single study. Anyone considering changing or beginning treatment of any kind should consult with a physician.