In Depth

Fact Check: Do pets really give babies a health boost?

The Week checks out reports that furry animals can protect infants from allergies and obesity

Several newspapers have reported on the health benefits of exposing young children to pets, but critics warn that some of the claims are misleading. What's the truth?

What did the papers say?

"Loving dogs is good for your health," reads a Daily Mail headline. The paper claims that people exposed to pets from an early age are less likely to have allergies or be obese. "If you're thinking of adding a dog to your family, there are now two reasons to say yes," it adds.

It is not only the Mail - the Daily Mirror also says owning a pet dog "can help parents have a healthy baby".

Behind the stories was a study published in Microbiome journal about research by researchers from the University of Toronto and other Canadian institutions.

Scientists examined whether exposing a baby to pets, both while in the womb and after birth, has any impact on their healthy gut bacteria.

What did the study discover?

Scientists in Canada analysed stool samples from 746 babies as part of a national health programme between 2009 and 2012. The average age of the infants was a little more than three months.

Samples were separated according to pet exposure both during and after pregnancy. Nearly half (46.8 per cent) of the infants lived in a household with a pet, most commonly a dog.

The researchers found that exposure to pets increased the abundance of two bacteria, Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, which previous studies have linked to improved gut health.

Team member Anita Kozyrskyj, a paediatric epidemiologist at the University of Alberta, said: "The abundance of these two bacteria were increased twofold when there was a pet in the house."

The scientists also noted that earlier studies identified a link between lower levels of these bacteria and a higher chance of allergies and obesity in children. However, the study did not examine the long-term outcomes of this.

Who is right?

"Both headlines were misleading, wrongly giving the impression that researchers had looked at allergy and obesity rates in later life. This was not the case," says NHS Choices.

While exposure to pets was seen to boost levels of healthy gut bacteria in young babies, as the scientists did not examine the impact of this further, they did not prove that having an animal in the house protected infants from developing allergies or becoming obese later on in life.

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