Here's the latest proof of the power of pets at home.
In a study published today in the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that kids who spent time around dogs and cats during their first year of life were healthier and got fewer ear infections and needed fewer courses of antibiotics than little ones who led animal-free lives.
So canine- and feline-loving grandparents and parents can cheer. And that's a lot of people. Some 59 percent of Americans own a cat or dog, including 16 percent who own both, 28 percent who own only a dog, and 15 percent who own only a cat, according to a Gallup survey. They pick pets for companionship or friendship, protection or security, hunting or exercise, or just a love of animals.
"For many families, the pets are like family members," says pediatrician Elija Bergroth, the lead author of the new study.
She and her colleagues followed 397 Finnish children for one year, so they don't know how long the "protective effect" lasts, she says.
The healthiest kids lived in houses with dogs that spent six or fewer hours inside. Why? One possible explanation: The amount of dirt and bacteria brought indoors by these pooches is presumably higher, which might help the children's immune systems to mature.
For this study, researchers looked at kids exposed to pooches and felines in rural and suburban areas. They aren't sure whether pets in the city would be as protective since the apparent immune system benefits might come from something the animals bring indoors from the outside.
Researchers did not look at the type of dog or cat or at the effect of other animals, such as gerbils, fish or birds.
Of course, pets may not work for people with allergies, or for those who are unable to care for or pay for them. They also require special care around little ones. To prevent bites, do not leave small children alone with canines. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that each year 4.7 million people in the United States are bitten by dogs.
How are you most likely to benefit from the power of pets at home? Be cautious - and pick a child-friendly type of dog. (Try petside.com's breed selector.) In the process, you may even give your grandchild's immune system a boost.
Dogs are man's best friend. But studies like this one indicate that they may be baby's best friend, too.
For more stories about animals and your family, read: