A new study suggests that having pet cats or dogs during fetal development and early infancy may decrease the likelihood of young children developing food allergies. The study, which was published in the journal PLOS One, analyzed data from over 65,000 children from Japan and found that those exposed to cats or indoor dogs had a 13% to 16% lower risk of all food allergies compared to babies in pet-free homes. Additionally, children exposed to cats were less likely to develop egg, wheat, and soybean allergies, while those exposed to dogs were less likely to have egg, milk, and nut allergies. However, exposure to hamsters during fetal development was linked to a higher risk of nut allergies, and there was no association between turtles and birds and food allergies. While the exact mechanism behind this correlation remains unclear, experts suggest that pet exposure may strengthen an infant’s gut microbiome, either directly or indirectly through changes in the parent’s or home microbiome.
Dr. Amal Assa’ad, director of the Food Allergy Program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, who was not involved in the study, explained that the microbiome, which consists of the bacteria that live within our gut, affects our immune responses and our immune system, particularly in relation to the development of allergies. Dr. Jonathan Bernstein, president of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, suggested that dirt and other materials secreted by pets could be beneficial in this respect. Previous research has yielded mixed results, with some studies linking pet exposure to decreased risk of food allergy and others finding no association.
A new study suggests that having pet cats or dogs during fetal development and early infancy may decrease the likelihood of young children developing food allergiesAlthough the study’s researchers took several factors into account that could influence a participant’s risk of food allergy, including the mother’s age, history of allergic disease, smoking status, and place of residence, they caution that other factors may have influenced the results. Additionally, food allergy data was self-reported, which relies on accurate diagnosis from participants.
Dr. Bernstein emphasized that there is a need to confirm these types of studies before making any significant lifestyle changes. Nevertheless, he reassures pet owners that there may be an added benefit to having a pet, not only in terms of what it does for families and people’s general love of pets, but also potentially protecting against allergies with early life exposure. The study’s authors conclude that exposure to cats and dogs may be beneficial against the development of certain food allergies, alleviating concerns about pet-keeping and reducing the burden of food allergies. They hope that these results can guide research into the drivers behind childhood food allergies and provide reassurance to pet owners.