Infants and Dogs: A Perfect Match

One of the most devastating things for a young child is to be held back from play or social excursions with others because of allergies. Not only do allergies have the potential to interfere with kids’ social lives, they can also disrupt a child’s natural tendency to spend time in the Great Outdoors, and put an end to bonding activities with pets, including walking the dog amidst natural scenery. Of late, members of the scientific community are pointing to the alarming fact that most children spend up to 90 per cent of their time indoors, a habit that is exacerbated when kids have illnesses that keep them indoors. Allergies can be caused by a myriad of factors, yet studies indicate that one excellent way of battling respiratory allergies or asthma is by exposing infants to dogs soon after birth.

One study, carried out by the University of Wisconsin Department of Pediatrics, found that far from keeping pets away from children until they are older, the ideal time for the first meeting between pet and child is soon after the birth of the latter, since it is during this time that pets can exert the maximum beneficial effect on children’s immunity and reduce the likelihood of contracting certain allergic diseases. The study looked at 275 children with at least one parent suffering from respiratory allergies. For three years, researchers analyzed whether or not a dog was present in the home, checked children’s immune responses and observed whether or not they had typical symptoms of allergies. By the time the children were three years old, it was observed that those with pet dogs at home during infancy showed far lower percentages of wheezing and atomic dermatitis. The exact mechanisms causing this positive outcome is as yet undetermined, though it is thought that the presence of dogs affects the development of the immune system in a positive way. Interestingly, dogs themselves often suffer from the same types of allergies we do – substances like grass, pollen and particular foods can cause everything from itching to quite serious consequences such as diarrhea and hair loss. Indeed, allergies are one of the main reasons that owners often feel the need to guard themselves against financial loss by taking out pet policies, since treatment can be lengthy and can last the duration of an animal’s life. As an alternative to medication, many owners opt for special skincare products and anti-dander shampoos, to decrease the skin’s reaction to allergens.

Dogs and Adults: The Magic Lives On

The findings on the positive health benefits dogs can bestow on infants are interesting, primarily since many families tend to put off dog ownership until their children are a little older. Those who have always had a pet can attest to the fact that when a new baby arrives into the family, the relationship usually runs smoothly and is enjoyed by dog and baby alike.

Of course, dogs bestow a variety of health benefits on older children and adults as well. Dog owners live longer and some of the many documented benefits of having a canine pet include weight maintenance, lower blood pressure and improved cardiovascular health. Animals also help with mental conditions such as depression and anxiety, since they can increase self-esteem and promote a positive mental outlook. The benefits extend beyond the immediately obvious; dogs help us stay fit because they force us, as it were, to become more social beings, since new relationships with other people are often made (and old ones strengthened) when we walk our dogs.

Various studies, conducted in Australia, Germany and China, have found that dog ownership encourages people to exercise more, take less sick days and even visit the doctor less. The positive benefit is most observable in older populations, who tend to rely more heavily on already strained health care services. The benefit of dog ownership can be quantified through serious savings: almost $6 billion for Germany and close to $4 million for Australia! As the Australian Companion Animal Council Inc. notes, “Companion animals deliver proven physical, psychological and health benefits for pet owners and have important benefits for society as a whole. Modern lifestyles can create loneliness, isolation and a sense of vulnerability. Dog ownership provides companionship, gives immense pleasure and reduces stress levels, without the demands of human relationships.”  

Dogs Make Us Better People

The same report notes that dog ownership improves social skills and self-esteem in children, helps initiate conversations with new people and bestows a wide range of benefits to the sick and disabled through therapy. Dogs are one of the most successful means to achieve desired goals in hospitals, prisons, psychiatric institutions, schools and nursing homes. By increasing the amount of exercise we do, lowering our stress levels and encouraging us to seize the day, they are surely one of the greatest sources of joy in life.

Contributed by reader, Emma Renfrew