BY: DUSTIN BATTY
Dogs have long been considered “man’s best friend,” the best non-human companion that any human could ask for. Indeed, animal studies scholar Donna Haraway describes the intricacies of the human-dog relationship in her Companion Species Manifesto, explaining the “significant otherness” of these interspecial bonds. A recent study at the University of Alberta shows that having a dog around could be even more significant than we thought, especially for the very young who are still developing their gut microbes.
Gut microbes—tiny organisms that live in our digestive tract—play an important part in our lives. They help with digestion, produce vitamins B and K, and help our immune systems function properly. According to the U of A study, they can also help protect us against allergies and obesity. Unfortunately, not everyone is exposed to the same microbes while growing up, so people don’t always develop the immunities that they could. But by getting a better understanding of the different microbes, what they do and when they develop, we can take measures to help our children improve their immunity.
Being around dogs can help infants develop specific gut microbes that protect against allergies and obesity.
The study found that having dogs around can help infants quickly develop a wide range of gut microbes, which provides protection against the development of allergies. In particular, the presence of dogs greatly increased the presence of the microbe Oscillospira, which has been strongly associated with leanness and a low body mass index—in other words, it helps protect against obesity. It also helps prevent children from experiencing inflammatory bowel disease.
However, the gut microbes that provide this protection can only be introduced at a very young age: the study found that the presence of dogs is only effective from the second trimester of pregnancy to when the child is three months old. Gut flora continues to grow and diversify quickly until the child is about three years old—at which point over a thousand different microbes will be living in the child’s intestine—but the development of Oscillospira and other pet-influenced microbes will only be present in reduced amounts if the child isn’t exposed to them at the right time.
The presence of dogs is particularly effective from the second trimester of pregnancy until the infant is 3 months old.
According to the authors, the presence of cats or other “furry pets” could have a similarly positive effect on an infant’s gut microbes, but those results are less clear. Dogs, however, were shown to cause a definite and significant increase in the presence of protective organisms in infants.
Not only are dogs great companions that can help us maintain our mental and emotional stability, as well as reduce our blood pressure and stress; they can also provide us with important microbes that can help us live happier, healthier lives.