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Babies With Pets May Be Less Likely to Develop Food Allergies

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About 8% of children in the U.S. have a food allergy, roughly double the percentage who did in 2007. It’s not entirely clear why more kids are being diagnosed with food allergies, both in the U.S. and across the world—but as these potentially life-threatening conditions grow more common, lots of researchers are studying how to treat or prevent them.

A study published in PLOS ONE on Mar. 29 offers one potential strategy: get a pet. Among thousands of babies in Japan, exposure to cats or dogs during pregnancy or early infancy was associated with a lower risk of developing food allergies, the researchers found.

That finding is based on data from the Japan Environment and Children’s Study, an ongoing trial that includes about 100,000 women in Japan who became pregnant from January 2011 to March 2014 and their children. Kids in the study are tracked until they turn 13 so researchers can learn more about how their living conditions and environmental exposures affect their health.

The new study looked at about 66,000 children whose mothers provided information about their pet exposure and food allergies. Compared to children without pets, kids who were exposed to a cat or dog during pregnancy or early infancy were roughly 15% less likely to develop allergies to common triggers including eggs, milk, wheat, soybeans, and nuts by age three, according to their mothers’ survey responses.

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Other pets—including hamsters, turtles, and birds—didn’t seem to provide the same benefits. Dogs kept indoors were also associated with a larger risk reduction than dogs kept outdoors.

Scientists don’t fully understand the link between animal exposure and food allergies, the researchers write. One theory is that living with pets alters babies’ microbiomes in a way that protects them from food sensitivities, but more research is needed to say for sure.

The new study should be taken with a grain of salt, since it relies on parents’ survey answers rather than objective allergy diagnostics. This sort of data also can’t prove cause and effect—so, while the researchers considered factors like parental health, the family’s socioeconomic status, and where they lived, it’s possible there’s another explanation for the link between pets and lower rates of food allergy.

Not all previous studies on pets and food allergies have come to the same conclusion, the authors note. However, other researchers have found that kids who live with pets during infancy are less likely to develop environmental allergies, asthma, and other respiratory illnesses. Pets are also associated with better mental and physical health among adults—so adopting a cat or dog may be beneficial for an entire household’s health.

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Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com