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Study Says ... Dogs Beat Out Cats

We love all our pets. But are dogs better for your kids' health than cats? Say it ain't so!

Hate to be the one to break it to you. But a big new study is tilting the evidence toward the dog in the house.

How so? Well, it looks like your pooch is protecting your kids against more than just the mailman. Having a beagle, spaniel, lab or any old mutt seems to reduce the chances the kids will develop allergies.

Allergies? I know. This probably sounds counter-intuitive. After all, kids are often allergic to dogs, cats and other pets. But there's a growing body of research suggesting that children who spend lots of time around animals, like kids who grow up on farms, are less likely to get asthma, hay fever, eczema and other allergic diseases.

The theory is our furry four-legged friends expose children to dirt, microbes and more, training their developing immune systems not to overreact to pollen and other things that can cause allergies. I touched on this in a recent story about increases in both allergies and other immune system disorders.

The evidence, however, for which house pets are best for kids' immune systems has been mixed. Well, the big new study is the largest so far to focus on dogs.

Joachim Heinrich of the National Research Center for Environmental Health in Munich and his colleagues followed more than 6,000 children from birth until age 6. The researchers quizzed the kids' parents every year about whether they had asthma, hay fever, eczema or an other allergic diseases. The team also studied dust from their homes, and took blood samples when the children turned 6.

The kids who grew up with a dog were about 50 percent less likely to have antibodies to dust mites, pollen and other substances that commonly trigger allergies, the researchers reported this week in the European Respiratory Journal. That's a strong indication they'll be less likely to get allergies later in life. Now, it's not just having regular contact with a dog that appears to make the difference. Only kids who actually lived with one seemed to benefit.

So I know all you cat lovers are wondering: What about our beloved companions? An earlier study by Heinrich and some colleagues found no similar benefit from living with a feline. In fact, kids who had regular contact with kitties were more likely to develop one allergy -- to cats.

By Rob Stein  |  May 1, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health  
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