A dog may be your baby’s best friend, according to a study by the Kuopio University Hospital in Finland.
The study of 397 children born at the hospital between September 2002 and May 2005 show that the babies who lived with a dog – or, to a lesser extent, a cat - spent fewer weeks with ear infections, coughs or runny noses and were less likely to need antibiotics.
"The results suggest that dog contacts may have a protective effect on respiratory tract infections during the first year of life," wrote lead author and paediatrician, Dr Eija Bergroth.
"Our findings support the theory that during the first year of life, animal contacts are important, possibly leading to better resistance to infectious respiratory illnesses during childhood."
The study was based on the completion of weekly diaries by parents for babies from nine weeks to twelve months old. The diary recorded information on the babies’ health as well as their contact with dogs and cats. Around 35% of the children in the study spent time with a dog and 24% with a cat.
The researchers found that contact with dogs, more than cats, was tied to fewer weeks of sickness for babies.
For example, infants with no dog contact at home were healthy for 65% of parents' weekly diary reports compared with 76% for those who had a dog at home.
Infants who spent more than zero but fewer than six hours per day at home with a dog were the least likely to get sick, the researchers said.
"A possible explanation for this interesting finding might be that the amount of dirt brought inside the home by dogs could be higher in these families because the dog spent more time outdoors," the researchers wrote.
This is likely to cause the child’s immune system to mature faster providing a better defence against viruses and bacteria that cause respiratory problems.
However, Dr Bergroth also said that the research couldn't rule out the possibility that people who owned dogs were less likely to get sick for another reason, and not due to protection offered by pets. Dr Bergroth noted that not all research agrees that exposure to dogs and cats helps protect children against breathing problems, there is an overall trend in that direction.