This week on Ireland AM we discussed the health benefits of living in closer proximity to animals.
Watch the video link at the foot of the page, or read on to find out more.
Pets are good for children’s health as long as sensible precautions are taken
A) Proof that pets are good for human health
Pets change the microbiome of the home so that it is more likely to contribute to a healthy immune system in a growing child
Microbiome is a word that means “the microorganisms in a particular environment (including the body or a part of the body)”
So the microbiome of your bowel means the bacteria in your intestines: this has been discussed before.
Scientists are paying increasing attention to the “indoor microbiome” which means the billions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that we share our homes with.
In the past, we have been encouraged to think that such bugs are bad for us, with adverts for disinfectants etc
But they are now saying that exposure to a wide variety of indoor germs may actually be good for your health, helping to stave off a variety of illnesses.
There is growing concern that, by trying to banish bacteria from our indoor world, we have become too clean for our own good.
We run the risk of removing the mix of microscopic organisms that our immune system needs to develop properly.
This is an area where it’s now believed that dogs may be able to help us
Dogs roll in puddles, much and mud. They sniff faeces and roll in fox droppings. Then they come back into our homes, bringing bacteria with them on their paws, muzzles and coats. The latest research suggests that these dog-carried bugs may be actually help us stay healthy.
Many studies have shown that children who grow up in households with dogs have a lower risk for developing immune-system linked illnesses like asthma and allergies — and it may be a result of the mixture of microbial organisms that animals bring into our homes.
According to the so-called “hygiene hypothesis”, spending over 90 percent of our time in the bacteria-poor environment indoors, as we do (especially early in life, when our immune systems are being formed), can cause our bodies to overreact to harmless substances later on, causing allergic type illnesses
Exposure to animal micro-organisms early in life helps to stimulate a child’s immune system so that it is less likely to become over-sensitive later in life.
A study published last year in The New England Journal of Medicine found that Amish children in Indiana who grew up close to barnyard animals had far lower rates of asthma than Hutterite children, who were raised apart from animals on large mechanized farms in North Dakota.
The researchers believe that the Amish children suffered from fewer immune-related illnesses than the rest of us because they had grown up in close proximity to their livestock and the accompanying bacteria, as has been the norm in human communities for thousands of years.
Research has shown that dog ownership raised the levels of 56 different classes of bacterial species in our homes, while cats increased the levels of only 24 categories because they live more fastidious lifestyles.
B) Steps to take to ensure that pets don’t carry any risk to human health
So the message is that dogs are good for children’s health, as long as sensible steps are taken including washing hands before meals.
There are two other steps you should take for child health protection against Toxocara, the dog roundworm, which can cause blindness in children.
- Worm your dog regularly: every 1 – 3 months as recommended by your vet
- Pick up your dog’s poops regularly: Toxocara eggs have to sit in the environment for 2 – 3 weeks before they become dangerous to humans, so if you pick up after your dog promptly, even if there are a few worm eggs in your dog’s poops, you will remove them before they become dangerous
The final important aspect of child safety to be aware of is the risk of dog bites:
Children are more likely than adults to be bitten by dogs because:
- Children are smaller than adults so dogs are less likely to be afraid of biting them
- Dogs are sometimes unfamiliar with children, so they can be frightened of them, and this can lead to biting
- Children often don’t understand dog body language (eg growling) so they accidentally provoke dogs to bite
So what can be done?
- Introduce children to dogs carefully, under strict monitoring
- If in doubt, get the dog to wear a muzzle – nothing wrong with doing this
- Teach children how to behave around dogs from a young age eg using the Kennel Club Safe and Sound online game
- Train your dog regularly (15 mins a day) so that they are obedient
- Have an indoor kennel (“crate”) at home so that your dog effectively has his own “private bedroom” where he can go when he wants peace: children should know that they don’t disturb the dog when he goes in there
- Have a simple rule: no child should ever be left unsupervised with any dog however well you think you know the dog. Children can be rash and impetuous and dogs can be understandably aggressive out of self defence. As an example, I came across a dog this week that was frightened of boys, growling at them, because a boy in the house ran the dog’s tail over accidentally with roller blades.
So the message is welcome animals into your home: they are good for us.