Q. Is it healthy for babies to have a pet in the house?
A. It’s important that any pet in the house not pose a risk for injuring a baby. But can a furry housemate also promote illnesses or allergies? Jonathan Gaffin, a pediatric pulmonologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, says that for the most part, studies suggest that exposure to pets doesn’t have negative health consequences for infants, and may benefit them.
Several studies have found that babies in households with pets have a lower incidence of allergies. And a 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics examining households of nearly 400 Finnish infants found that owning pets was linked to a lower incidence of respiratory infections, though the effect was stronger for dogs. The babies were healthiest if the pet spent more time outdoors, supporting the “hygiene hypothesis,” which posits that exposure to microbes from the outside world benefits babies’ immune function. Recent studies have found that pets influence the community of microbes in babies’ digestive systems.
Gaffin says that the evidence isn’t clear-cut, and families with a history of allergies may be less likely to own pets, skewing the results. “We don’t recommend people go out and buy pets” as a protective measure, he adds, but they can feel relatively secure that their pets are harmless and possibly even good for babies. But that benefit is moot for children with pet allergies. “If someone has allergies to a pet,” he says, “having that pet in the home is absolutely not advisable.”
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