Researchers from the Fukushima Regional Center for the Japan Environment and Children’s Study found that children who were exposed to pets such as indoor cats or dogs during their early infancy or fetal development were less likely to have food allergies when compared to children with no exposure.
“The hygiene hypothesis suggests that pet exposure is effective in preventing allergic disease, and some studies have reported the beneficial effects of dog exposure during fetal development or early infancy on food allergy,” the researchers wrote in their study published in PLOS One. “However, the effects of exposure to pets other than dogs on the kinds of food allergies remains unaddressed.” Therefore, the investigators sought to examine the impact of being exposed to different types of pets on the likelihood of developing food allergies.
The study utilized data from a cohort of 97,413 mothers and their children. Information on pet exposure and food allergies was collected through questionnaires. Logistic regression analyses were conducted to explore the associations between exposure to different pet species and the incidence risk of food allergies. The analysis also considered the specific causative foods and the timing of exposure during fetal development or early infancy.
“Exposure to dogs or cats during fetal development or early infancy was estimated to reduce the incidence risk of food allergies until the age of 3 years,” the researchers stated. Specifically, dog exposure was associated with a reduced risk of egg, milk, and nut allergies, while cat exposure was linked to a lower risk of egg, wheat, and soybean allergies. Exposure to hamsters, however, was “estimated to increase the incidence risk of nut allergy.”
The study does suffer from several limitations. Firstly, the data used in this study relied on self-reporting by participants, supplemented by medical records collected during early pregnancy, delivery, and the follow-up visits. While this approach provides valuable insights, it is subject to the accuracy of participants’ recall. Additionally, the study design does not establish a causative relationship between pet exposure and the development of food allergies.
As researchers continue to explore this fascinating area of study, pet owners and expectant parents may find reassurance in the possibility that their furry companions could provide more than just companionship—they may contribute to the long-term health and well-being of their children.