We've all heard the saying that a dog is man's best friend...as it turns out, it might be more accurate to say that pets are your microbiome's best friend!
While we've known for years that pets are great for your blood pressure, mood, and stress levels, researchers are starting to get a sense of exactly how our furry friends keep us feeling so amazing, and it's far more than we ever could have imagined. In fact, having a pet may be one of the most effective (and loveable) sources of beneficial bacteria (aka probiotics) you can be exposed to without ever even suspecting it.
Microbes, Microbes Everywhere!
Just as your gut and skin have their own microbiomes, your home is teeming with it’s own unique set of bacteria and microorganisms. The bacteria in your home environment contribute to your own microbial diversity, which is a key factor in keeping your immune system in optimal shape.
You see, your personal microbiome is an ecosystem, and just like any other ecosystem, it tends to thrive on diversity. That means that the more types of bacteria you have in the mix, the more likely your microbiome is to be in balance (and the more likely you are to stay healthy and feel great). Just one problem: because of our modern, overzealous notions of cleanliness, many of us strip our surroundings of the beneficial bacteria that can improve our health.
That's Where Pets Come In
Pets have their own distinctive microbiomes, which they cultivate by playing around outside, then spread to their surroundings (and yours) once they come indoors. While this might sound kind of gross, it's actually incredibly beneficial to your health and especially the health of your children. One of the biggest benefits is that those friendly bacteria your pet provides "train" the immune system to react appropriately to things like dust, pollen, and even certain types of food by bringing in lots of different types of bacteria.1
If a person grows up in a relatively sterile environment, their immune system never gets a chance to learn what things to react to and what things to let slide, which means that they tend to overreact to things that simply aren't threats. The result? Anything from repeatedly being under the weather to food sensitivities.
In fact, fascinating new research shows that children who grow up around animals have very different immune responses than those who don't, most likely because of the way the animals’ microbiomes affect children’s immune system development.2 Children who grow up around animals are much more likely to have immune systems that respond appropriately to stimuli––for instance, they're less likely to get the sneezes because of their immune systems mistaking pollen for a dangerous substance, or to have challenges with breathing because of dust.
And this effect isn't limited to the respiratory system. Researchers have found that children who grow up with pets are also much less likely to experience skin over-reactions, particularly if they're exposed to them in the first year of their life or even in the womb.3,4 In fact children who spend time around animals have lower levels of IgE––a substance that causes the immune system to react to various substances. While this is very useful in moderation, if the immune system hasn't been "trained" to react appropriately, IgE can have you reacting to everything from dust and pollen to certain foods.
It appears that being around animals "trains" the immune system in ways that last a lifetime.
What's more, having a pet appears to help children's microbiomes compensate for specific hurdles, like being born via C-section. Children who are born via C-section don't get the same kind of crucial microbial exposure that children who are born vaginally do, which leaves them more likely to experience challenges with their weight, immune function, and ability to regulate insulin. But research suggests that growing up around a pet can mitigate some of these effects, particularly when it comes to weight issues.5
Here’s How You Can Keep Your Pet Healthy So They Can Keep Your Family Feeling Their Best:
1. Don't overclean.
This applies to both your home and your pets. While we've been taught to attack even the slightest sign of dirt with antibacterial cleansers, this strips our homes of the many good guys, right along with the few bad ones.
Similarly, go easy on cleaning your pets. Many of us have the idea that we need to clean our pets in relatively the same way we clean ourselves, but actually, most pets don't need to be bathed all that often, and overcleaning is bad for their skin and fur. When you do bathe your pets, make sure that you use gentle, natural cleansers that leave their microbiome as intact as possible. It's better for their health and better for yours!
2. Play with your pets outside.
Not only is it a good way to keep your kids and animals happy and healthy, it helps diversify both of their microbiomes! So let your pets roll around in the dirt or stretch out in the grass a little––they'll bring more beneficial bacteria into your life as a result, plus you'll get to enjoy all the health benefits of being in nature while you're outside with them.
3. Support their health with probiotics.
Your pets' microbiome can become depleted or out of balance in response to things like stress, exposure to antibiotics in food or medication, environmental contaminants, and that slightly-too-old-container of leftovers they managed to dig out of the trash. By supporting their health with a premium pet probiotic like PRO-Pets, you can not only keep them feeling great, you'll be able to enjoy the benefits of being around their microbiome for years to come.
What If You Can't Have a Pet?
Sometimes circumstances mean that you can't have as much exposure to animals in your life as you'd like. But there are still lots of ways to experience the benefits of a pet even if you can't have one yourself. Try things like volunteering at an animal shelter, visiting a cat or dog cafe, or taking your kids to a petting zoo.
And don't forget about the pets that might be closer to home! Ask your friends if you can pet sit for them or just come over to play. Chances are they'll be happy to have the help, and you'll be able to enjoy some time with their furry friends. As well, it’s always a great idea to take a targeted probiotic like PRO-Kids or PRO-15, which has a plentiful number of strains to repopulate the good guys often lost in the face of modern life.
You already know just how much joy your pets bring to your life, and now you have one more reason to be happy they're around. So give them the little bit of support they need from you to keep their microbiomes thriving...and enjoy knowing that they'll be returning the favor in a big way!
1. Fujimura, K.E., Johnson, C.C., Ownby, D.R., Cox, M.J. . . . Lynch, S.V. (2010). Man's Best Friend? The Effect of Pet Ownership on House Dust Microbial Communities. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 126(2). doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2010.05.042
2. Stein, M. M., Hrusch, C. L., Gozdz, J., Igartua, C., Pivniouk, V., Murray, S. E., . . . Sperling, A. I. (2016). Innate Immunity and Asthma Risk in Amish and Hutterite Farm Children. New England Journal of Medicine, 375(5), 411-421.
3. Ownby, D.R. and Johnson, C.J. (2011). Does Exposure to Cats or Dogs in Early Life Alter a Child’s Risk of Atopic Dermatitis? Journal of Pediatrics 158(2). doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2010.09.055
4. Havstad, S., Wegienka, G., Zoratti, E.M., Lynch, S.V. . . . Johnson, C.C. (2011). Effect of Prenatal Indoor Pet Exposure on the Trajectory of Total IgE Levels in Early Childhood. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 128(4). doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2011.06.039
5. Cassidy-Bushrow, A.E., Wegienka, G., Havstad, S., Levin, A.M. . . . Johnson, C.C. (2015). Does Pet-Keeping Modify the Association of Delivery Mode with Offspring Body Size? Maternal and Child Health Journal 19(6). doi: 10.1007/s10995-014-1649-y
Rachel Allen is a writer at Hyperbiotics who's absolutely obsessed with learning about how our bodies work. She's fascinated by the latest research on bacteria and the role they play in health, and loves to help others learn about how probiotics can help the body get back in balance. For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.