Having a dog protects young children from Crohn’s disease, study finds

Children who grow up with pet dogs are less likely to get Crohn’s disease later in life, according to a new study. Unfortunately for cat owners, however, scientists found that felines do not protect young ones from developing the debilitating condition.

The study also suggests that growing up in a large family could also help protect people from developing Crohn’s disease.

So why the benefit from dogs? Researchers believe canine creatures expose children to microbes while they are still young, which helps build up their immune system. Exposure to dogs, particularly between the ages of five and 15, helps people have a strong gut lining and ensures they have a healthy balance between gut microbes and the body’s immune response- both of which help protect people from Crohn’s disease.

Cats do not have the same gut-healing powers but the researchers are unsure why this is. They think it may be because dog owners can’t avoid going on a walk with their pet and are more likely to live near green space. Both walking and living in a leafy area have previously been shown to protect people from the condition.

Living with three or more family members in the first year of life is also associated with a healthy gut later in life.

A healthy gut is believed to play a role in protecting people from Crohn’s and a range of other illnesses including colorectal cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure.

For the study, academics in Canada used a questionnaire to collect information from parents, siblings and children of just under 4,300 people with Crohn’s disease who were enrolled in the Crohn’s and Colitis Canada Genetic, Environmental, and Microbial (CCC-GEM) project.

The team used the responses and analysed environmental factors including presence of dogs or cats as household pets, the number of bathrooms in the house, living on a farm, drinking unpasteurized milk and drinking well water. The analysis also included age at the time of exposure.

Researchers hope their findings may help physicians ask detailed questions about patients to help them understand who is at the highest risk from Crohn’s disease.

“Our study seems to add to others that have explored the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ which suggests that the lack of exposure to microbes early in life may lead to lack of immune regulation toward environmental microbes,” says senior author Dr. Williams Turpin, of the University of Toronto, in a statement. “We did not see the same results with cats, though we are still trying to determine why. It could potentially be because dog owners get outside more often with their pets or live in areas with more green space, which has been shown previously to protect against Crohn’s.”

Most Crohn’s disease cases first develop when people are aged 16 to 30. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain and weight loss. Treatments currently aim to prevent symptom flare-ups through diet modification, medication, and surgery.

The study findings were presented at the Digestive Disease Week 2022 conference in San Diego, California.

Report by South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright

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