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Ask almost any pet owner, and they’ll tell you that owning and looking after their beloved dog, cat or other furry or feathered friend has definitely been good for their health.
However, a lot of the discussion about how beneficial our pets are for our health has long revolved around how their affectionateness after a long and difficult day supports our emotional health, or even how they might serve as an ‘icebreaker’ helping us to meet potential friends and dates.
What hasn’t been talked about so much is the potential role of pet ownership in enhancing immunity – and the evidence backing this is stronger than you might expect.
Introducing the ‘hygiene hypothesis’
Much of the increasing reasoning for pet ownership being good for our immunity relates to what is known as the “hygiene hypothesis”. This is the belief held by some in the scientific community that humans as a species have become too clean for our own good, from an immunity perspective.
Proponents of this view argue that our ever-greater emphasis on killing every microbe that enters our home denies our immune system the opportunity it would otherwise have to keep itself active through exposure to all manner of bacteria.
The idea behind the “hygiene hypothesis” is that the immune system being kept busy by having to deal with a wide range of bacteria helps to prevent it turning on the body by attacking things that are actually innocuous, which is what happens with allergic reactions.
And guess what? A pet will certainly expose you to a range of bacteria
You only need to think for a moment about the way many pets – especially dogs – actually live, to appreciate that owning a domestic animal is almost guaranteed to expose you to a greater diversity of bacteria, viruses and fungi than if you didn’t have a pet at all.
Dogs, after all, get physically dirty and sniff faeces and other substances that humans typically try to avoid. All manner of germs get stuck to their fur, snouts and paws, and ultimately end up in the homes of their owners.
As for the actual evidence of this bringing benefit to human health... well, there’s surprisingly a fair bit of it. Research published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2016, for example, found that Amish children in Indiana who grew up in close proximity to barnyard animals suffered from rates of asthma much lower than those of Hutterite children, who were raised separate from animals on large industrialised farms in North Dakota.
Then, there’s the study from 2004 that indicated petting dogs could heighten levels of immunoglobulin A, this antibody being instrumental in protecting the human gastrointestinal, respiratory and urinary tracts from infection.
But then again, all of this just concerns dogs. Do the same benefits apply if you have a cat? Alas, it seems the answer is “not quite”. While research published in 2015 found that dog ownership increased the levels of 56 different classes of bacterial species in the indoor environment, cats – which are, after all, famous for their fastidious hygiene habits – boosted a mere 24 categories.
It should also be noted, though, that there haven’t yet been enough large studies for us to conclude whether being exposed to feline microbes actually helps to prevent immune disorders, as seems to be the case with dogs. So, it’s very much a case of “watch this space”.
In short, then... could your pet help you to better immune health? There’s certainly some evidence of possible benefits, although much would likely depend on what type of pet you have, and whether they are an indoor or outdoor pet.
Regardless, it’s fascinating to see the emerging indications that owning a pet could be beneficial well beyond your glow of happiness when Rover greets you on your return home.
Many of us probably have an instinctive sense of what we think the immune system...