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Dogs can improve kids' health

Updated: Sep 24, 2012 03:34 PM EDT
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By Jennifer Viegas
 

Just by owning a dog, you are improving your chances of living a longer life.

Consider the statistics. Your chances of having a heart attack are reduced by 4 percent, likely due to more regular exercise. A survey of 1,000 Medicare patients found that 40 percent of all respondents with pets went to the doctor far less often than those without a canine friend around. Nursing homes that have companion animal programs are able to reduce their usage of prescription drugs. The good news about dogs just goes on and on.

Now, several compelling studies indicate that dog ownership is particularly beneficial to children, with positive health impacts likely extending into adulthood.


Dogs Protect Against Respiratory Infection Linked to Asthma

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, recently conducted a study that found that the house dust from a home with a cat or dog is distinct from the house dust in homes without pets. That in itself is common sense. But when they further investigated the differences, the scientists discovered that microbial agents in the pet-contributed dust contained microbes, which appear to protect against infection. The illness in question is a common respiratory virus associated with the development of asthma in kids.

Kei Fujimura, a researcher on the study, speculates "that microbes within dog-associated house dust may colonize the gastrointestinal tract, modulate immune responses, and protect the host." A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics supports the overall determination.

Eija Bergroth of Kuopio University Hospital in Finland studied 397 children from their birth onward. A diary was kept for each child, mentioning the frequency of respiratory symptoms and infections, together with info about dog and cat contacts during the first year of life. Kids that were in contact with dogs and cats had fewer instances of infection and, as a result, required fewer antibiotic treatments.

Bergroth and team suspect that "animal contacts could help to mature the immunologic system." It's therefore possible that early exposure to pets stimulates growing human bodies to jumpstart the immune system, which can then better kick into action to ward off illnesses with a health boost that could extend into adulthood. Some individuals are allergic to pet dander; for these people, the problems probably would outweigh the benefits, but the majority of people are not allergic to dogs.


Dogs May Help Prevent Cancer

Marion Vittecoq and Frederic Thomas of the Tour du Valat research center, who have investigated the possible connections between human health and pets, mention a National Institutes of Health Study by G.J. Tranah and team. It found that dog and cat owners have a reduced risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The longer the duration of pet ownership, the lower the risk that the individual will suffer from this type of cancer.

Could dogs help prevent other types of cancer? Hopefully future studies can help answer that intriguing question.


Dogs Promote Good Mental Health

So far, we've been addressing how dogs can benefit our physical health. Studies also show that canines are good for our mental health too. For example, psychologists at Miami University in Ohio and Saint Louis University conducted multiple experiments to see how pet ownership affects people. Almost to 400 individuals -- with pets and without -- participated.

"We observed evidence that pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than non-owners on several dimensions," said lead researcher Allen R. McConnell of Miami University in Ohio. "Specifically, pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extraverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners."

With a dog, we have the added bonus of gaining a new best friend. You probably even consider your dog to be a treasured family member, and for good reason. "Dogs are among our closest social companions because we have bred them for tameness and, over generations of selection, they have become even more socially compatible with humans," says Jon Day, a former researcher at Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition. "Such social relationships may be characterized by generally harmonious collaboration under conditions of balanced interests where social partners provide support for each other."

Day therefore touches on the other positive aspects of pet ownership, such as comfort, companionship and a pleasant, vibrant life force to share one's days with. The fact that canines may also improve our mental and physical health only adds to the reasons why you should pet your pup frequently with joy and gratitude … and maybe even consider adopting another dog.

 

Jennifer Viegas is the managing editor of The Dog Daily. She is a journalist for Discovery News, the news service for the Discovery Channel, and has written more than 20 books on animals, health and other science-related topics.

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