Growing up, we never had pets. Well OK, there was a brief bout with a gerbil, but that doesn’t really count. According to new research, our lack of furry friends could explain why my sister suffers from regular allergies, especially to cats.
According to a new study from the University of Michigan, scientists have long believed that people who grow up with a pet, like a dog or cat, or live on a farm with plenty of livestock are less likely to develop asthma or allergies. They called it the “hygiene hypothesis”: the idea that lack of exposure to certain types of bacteria, viruses and parasites inhibits the immune system. The hypothesis makes sense, but was hard to prove. Now, researchers are one step closer to understanding why having a pet seems to reduce the risk of allergies and asthma later in life.
“A team of researchers from the University of Michigan exposed a group of mice to dust from a dog owner’s home, then doused them and a population of mice who weren’t given dog dust to two asthma-related allergens (including cockroach compounds),” reports TIME Magazine. “The mice that had been exposed to the dog dust showed much lower inflammation in their airways, and produced less mucus than the mice that received no dust or dust from a nondog household.”
The results seem to be the work of tiny microbes living in the dog’s dust (and presumably other animals as well). When exposed to these microbes, the organisms living in the rats’ gut were transformed, allowing them to develop better defense mechanisms against the allergens, and reducing inflammatory response.
“Specifically, the researchers found that a single bacteria called Lactobacillus johnsonii was very prominent in the guts of the mice who lived with dog-related dust. When the researchers gave a live form of the bacteria to the mice that had not been exposed to dog dust, they found that the animals developed similar protection against allergens that the dust-exposed mice had,” explains TIME.
Scientists say that given time, they may be able to use this information to develop probiotics or microbe therapies that could treat or protect children from allergies and asthma. Although I still think it’d just be more fun if everyone got a pet!
Also see: Living with Allergies and Pets