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Our dogs may be protecting us from disease

Here's another reason to hug your dog!

By Cassidy Ward
Dog protecting boy.

The Secret Life of Pets gave us one imagined view of what goes on inside the minds of our companion animals when we’re not around. If it is to be believed, they go on death-defying adventures to save their friends all while we’re away at the office. In the real world, things are probably a little less exciting, but dogs are no less heroic.

In the distant past, wild dogs were a potential predator or competitor for early humans, but for tens of thousands of years our two species have been the best of friends. For the duration of that time, dogs have been protecting us. They serve as early warning systems, help us to hunt for food, and protect us from attackers. Even still, dogs as small as chihuahua’s will put their lives on the line to protect their human companions. We truly don’t deserve them.

Now, according to new research being presented at the 2022 Digestive Disease Week conference, we have reason to believe our canine friends are also protecting us against disease. The study asked nearly 4,300 participants — each of whom were first-degree relatives of a patient with Crohn’s disease — about a number of environmental factors present in their lives during early childhood. They found that exposure to dogs correlated with a decreased risk of developing Crohn’s disease later in life.

Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease which leads to pain, digestive distress, fatigue, and malnutrition, among other symptoms. The precise cause of its development remains a mystery but it’s believed that a malfunctioning immune response may be at play. While there’s currently no cure, there are therapies which can reduce the severity of the symptoms. Moreover, if the results of this recent study bear out, giving a kid a dog could amount to a preventative measure, reducing their likelihood of developing Crohn’s later in life.

Reviewing the results of their questionnaire, researchers found a relationship between people who had exposure to dogs between the ages of 5 and 15 and a healthy balance between the gut microbiome and immune response. In fact, the relationship was significant enough that it also showed up across other age groups.

Interestingly, researchers did not find the same link among participants who had only cats during early life. It’s unclear at this point why dogs are beneficial in the fight against Crohn’s while cats are not. It’s possible that there is some bacterial exposure which dogs provide that cat’s don’t. Another possible explanation, which researchers hope to explore in the future, is that dog owners spend more time outside with their pets than cat owners do. If that’s the cause, the dogs themselves may not be the primary cause of the protection but are instead correlated with getting your hands dirty outside.

That notion lines up with a separate idea in immune health, known as the hygiene hypothesis, which suggest that increased exposure to microbes in early life can result in a more robust immune response down the line.

Whatever the reason, it’s one more reason for us to love our dogs, as if we needed one. And, while we may not know what our dogs are up to when we’re not home, we can be certain that whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it with our happiness and well-being in mind. Dogs are the best.