Pet ownership and children's immune function
Children from pet owning families have less school absenteeism through illness, and are more likely to have normal levels of immune function then children from non-owning families. A new study helps dispel myths about pets, hygiene and children.
Recent medical research has suggested that babies born into pet owning families may derive health benefits through 'priming', via exposure, of the infant's developing immune system. Several studies attest to reductions in risks for developing asthma and other allergies in children brought up with animals in the family home.
A new study by Dr June McNicholas from the University of Warwick in the UK sought to investigate whether children of pet-owning families are more or less 'healthy' than children of non-*pet owning families by examining any discernible differences in levels of salivary immunoglobulin A (slgA) between children of pet owning and non-pet owning house*holds. Salivary immunoglobulin A was selected because of its ease of collection and because it is regarded as an indicator of immune function. 'Health' was also measured in behavioural terms through percentage attendance at school.
Subjects were 265 children aged between 5 and 11 years of age, recruited from three schools in England and Scotland. Pet ownership ranged from 23% in one English school to 39% in one Scottish school. Mean pet ownership rates amongst subjects were approx 30%. Non-pet ownership was not, as far as could be ascertained, due to existing health problem in the families.
Saliva samples were taken from all the children at mid-term for each of the three school terms. These were analysed for levels of slgA and pet owners were compared with non-pet owners on slgA levels and percentage school attendance.
It was found that pet ownership was significantly associated with better attendance rates across all primary/junior classes at school in one Warwickshire school, but was especially evident in lower school classes (ages 5-8 years). Translated into school attendance this difference was up to 18 half-days more school attendance for children aged 7-8 years.
In the other schools, pet ownership was also associated with higher levels of school attendance. Although the number of children achieving 100% attendance was similar amongst pet owners and non-owners, absenteeism through illness was significantly less amongst pet owning children, with children in the first two year levels having 18% and 13% better attendance respectively than non-pet owning children. This amounts to up to 3 weeks extra school attendance in pet owning children aged 5 to *7 years. There was some variation in attendance rates between winter, spring and summer terms, but overall pet owning children maintained higher levels of school attendance throughout the year.
Examination of salivary immunologobulin levels (slgA) suggests that levels found in pet owning children were more likely to be within normal ranges at all times of testing than were those from non-pet owning children whose levels showed significantly more variability below and above normal range of function.
It appears that the presence of pets in the home has some regulatory or stabilizing influence on the immune functioning of children.