Like many other couples, my husband and I got dogs before having children. After moving in together, it just seemed like the logical choice. Our first dog, Mia, was adopted as a six month old puppy from a local shelter. We named her after Uma Thurman’s “Pulp Fiction” character, one of our favorite movies. She is a gentle, timid, and very loving dachshund mix. Shortly after, we adopted Sugar, a miniature pinscher, who got her name because of her hyper and slightly crazed character.
Dominik has been up close with Mia and Sugar since the day he was brought home from the hospital. While Sugar typically only cares for him if he is eating (and sharing) food, Mia seemed to be protective and affectionate towards him from the start. He has been licked countless time, mostly in the face, as well as been constantly surrounded by the dirt and fur that goes along with having pets. We worried about other exposures and always had visitors wash their hands, but our dogs received a pass. This is because of the connection between a baby’s immune system and having pets.
There have been a few studies done on the effect of having a dog or cat during the first year of life. This first year is monumentally important, particularly on the development of the immune system. During this first year, a child’s body is basically taking inventory on the microbes of the child’s surroundings. An overly clean environment tricks a child’s body into thinking that it only needs to prepare for ultra clean surroundings. The results are frequent illnesses (a less prepared defense system) and allergies and asthma (the immune system overreacting).
In a household with a pet, the pet brings in microbes, dust, and pollen from outdoors and has their own bacteria or viruses in their saliva. If a baby is exposed to the dust, dirt, fur, and germs that come along with dogs and cats, they are less likely to develop allergies or asthma and have less frequent illnesses as well as be less likely to require antibiotics. Researchers believe that this exposure helps a baby’s immune system to mature properly in would otherwise be a very clean environment. After all, until recently in human history, babies have always been exposed to outdoor dirt. Biologically, we were meant to be outside.
So although when a dog or cat gives a little lick to a baby’s face it seems pretty gross, it’s actually helping their immune system prepare for all the yucky germs and pollutants they will be exposed to.