We’ve known for a long time the myriad health benefits of owning a dog, from improved mental wellbeing to healthier aging. Specifically for children, studies show that dog ownership correlates with decreased anxiety and decreased response to stress. Now there’s another reason to adopt: It can help your gut health.
New research suggests that living with a dog may provide a surprising benefit to children: better gut health. Williams Turpin, lead author and research associate at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, presented the findings Monday at the Digestive Disease Week conference in San Diego. The study will be published later this year in Gastroenterologya journal published by the American Gastroenterological Association.
“There was improved gut viral function in individuals who own a dog,” Turpin said at a news conference about the findings.
What’s new – Turpin and his team found that children who lived with a dog between the ages of two and four were significantly less likely to develop Crohn’s disease later in life, although exposure to dogs of all ages in childhood had a similar effect. . Second, children under the age of one who lived in a large family (with or without a dog) — with three or more family members — also had a reduced risk of Crohn’s disease.
Crohn’s disease is a long-term inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation in the digestive tract, leading to painful symptoms such as diarrhea and abdominal pain.
But little is known about environmental factors that contribute to digestive disease, such as family size and pets. So Turpin’s team set out to better understand the relationship between the environment we live in and our risk of developing Crohn’s disease. The participants ranged in age from less than a year old to 15 years old.
“We found that individuals who lived with a dog were, in fact, less likely to develop Crohn’s disease later in life,” Turpin says.
Why this happens – The findings surprised researchers, who were initially unsure about the link between dog ownership and better gut health.
“What was the possible mechanism that explains why dog owners were less likely to develop Crohn’s disease?” asks Turpin.
The scientists looked for clues in the gut to come up with a reasonable explanation. The researchers found no significant difference in markers of intestinal inflammation between children who lived with dogs and children who did not have dogs.
But when they looked at gut leakage — problems in the gut wall barrier that can lead to inflammation and changes in the gut microbiome — there were clear differences between the two groups. Children living with dogs had “consistent protective effects” against intestinal leaks, according to Turpin, which could help reduce the chance of developing Crohn’s disease.
It turned out that these two factors — owning a dog and living in a large family during childhood — were associated with changes in the composition of the individual’s gut microbiome later in life. The gut microbiome is made up of all the viruses and bacteria — good and bad — that thrive in the digestive tract. A healthy gut microbiome helps us digest food, influences the immune system and wards off pathogens, among many other vital functions. Certain bacteria in the gut are linked to everything from Crohn’s disease to type 2 diabetes.
Unfortunately, cat owners didn’t see the same benefits as kids with dogs, though researchers aren’t sure why.
“Dog owners may be more likely to take their pets outside or live in areas with more green space, which has previously been shown to protect against Crohn’s disease,” Turpin says.
How they did it – The researchers used a questionnaire to identify possible environmental factors associated with the development of Crohn’s disease. As part of this questionnaire, scientists interviewed more than 4,000 healthy participants who were relatives of individuals with Crohn’s disease.
Based on a follow-up more than five years later, researchers found that nearly 90 individuals developed Crohn’s disease. From the environmental assessment questionnaire, researchers were able to find out which factors from childhood were relevant for the onset of Crohn’s disease later in life.
“This study shows that living with a dog and having a larger family early in life may be protective against the future development of Crohn’s disease,” the researchers concluded.
What’s next – Before you start thinking about getting a dog for your child, you may want to exercise some restraint. It’s still not entirely clear why dog ownership improves gut health, and it’s also possible that biases regarding the types of individuals recruited may have influenced the study’s outcome.
But for those families with small children who already have dogs, the new research will likely only serve as an added bonus to the many benefits of living with man’s best friend. One day, it may turn out that your healthy gut owes Fido.