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Dogs, Cats May Help Kids Avoid Respiratory Illnesses

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Having dogs or cats during infancy may actually protect children from respiratory illnesses during the first year of life, a new study published in the journal Pediatrics suggests.

Finnish researchers followed 397 children from the time their mothers were pregnant through age 1.  They found that those who were exposed to dogs at home had fewer respiratory illnesses or symptoms compared with children who didn't have dogs.  Children with dogs also had less-frequent ear infections and needed antibiotics less often than children never exposed to dogs.

Cats offered similar protective benefits, but to a lesser degree.

The findings, wrote the authors, suggest that early contact with dogs or cats may ramp up infants' immune systems.

"We speculate that animal contacts could help to mature the immunologic system, leading to more composed immunologic response and shorter duration of infections," they wrote.

The amount of time a dog spends inside the home also has an impact on children's respiratory health.  Children who live in houses where dogs are inside less than six hours a day are at lowest risk for respiratory problems.  The authors believe it could be because dogs that are inside track less dirt.  More exposure to dirt leads to more exposure to different types of bacteria, which can help strengthen the immune system.

Other studies also suggest that pets can lower children's risk of certain illnesses.  Research out of the University of California, San Francisco published in June found that dust in homes where there are dogs may protect children against respiratory syncytial virus, a common cause of potentially severe cold-like illnesses.

But the Finnish study didn't include parents with allergies to dogs or cats.  Parents with these allergies are more likely to have children with the same allergies, and having pets around very young children who are allergic may be unsafe.

"If an infant has an allergic predisposition, their reaction will be more pronounced than an older child's," said Dr. Nina Shapiro, director of pediatric otolaryngology at UCLA's Mattel Children's Hospital, meaning that if an allergic infant is exposed to a dog or cat, it can potentially be dangerous.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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