Last updated on Jul 7th, 2020 at 02:05 pm

Known as man’s best friend, research has found that having a pet dog as a child reduces your risk of developing schizophrenia. Here’s how…

An ever faithful friend, we know that dogs provide owners with companionship and boost emotional wellbeing. Now new research has found that that being around dogs from an early age may lessen the chance of developing schizophrenia too.

“Serious psychiatric disorders have been associated with alterations in the immune system linked to environmental exposures in early life, and since household pets are often among the first things with which children have close contact, it was logical for us to explore the possibilities of a connection between the two,” says Robert Yolken, M.D., chair of the Stanley Division of Pediatric Neurovirology and professor of neurovirology in paediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Centre, and lead author of the study.

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The best childhood pet

Prof Yolken and colleagues at Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore investigated a population of 1 371 men and women between the ages of 18 and 65 that consisted of 396 people with schizophrenia, 381 with bipolar disorder and 594 controls.

All study participants were asked if they had a household pet cat or dog or both during their first 12 years of life.

Yolken says that the findings suggest that people who are exposed to a pet dog before their 13th birthday are significantly less likely – as much as 24% – to be diagnosed later with schizophrenia.

“The largest apparent protective effect was found for children who had a household pet dog at birth or were first exposed after birth but before age three,” he says.

Across the entire age range studied, there was no significant link between dogs and bipolar disorder, or between cats and either psychiatric disorder.

Understanding schizophrenia

Dogs boost human immune systems

Previous studies have identified early life exposures to pet cats and dogs as environmental factors that may alter the immune system through various means, including allergic responses, contact with zoonotic (animal) bacteria and viruses, changes in a home’s microbiome, and pet-induced stress reduction effects on human brain chemistry.

Some investigators, Yolken notes, suspect that this “immune modulation” may alter the risk of developing psychiatric disorders to which a person is genetically or otherwise predisposed.

“There are several plausible explanations for this possible ‘protective’ effect from contact with dogs – perhaps something in the canine microbiome that gets passed to humans and bolsters the immune system against or subdues a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia,” Yolken says.

For bipolar disorder, the study results suggest there is no risk association, either positive or negative, with being around dogs as an infant or young child.

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Overall, early exposure to pet cats was neutral as the study could not link felines with either an increased or decreased risk of developing schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

“However, we did find a slightly increased risk of developing both disorders for those who were first in contact with cats between the ages of nine and 12,” Yolken says. “This indicates that the time of exposure may be critical to whether or not it alters the risk.”

One example of a suspected pet-borne trigger for schizophrenia is the disease toxoplasmosis, a condition in which cats are the primary hosts of a parasite transmitted to humans via the animals’ faeces.

A large number of people studied who were diagnosed with serious psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, also had high levels of antibodies to the toxoplasmosis parasite.

Pregnant women have been advised for years not to change cat litter boxes to eliminate the risk of the illness passing through the placenta to their foetuses and causing a miscarriage, stillbirth, or potentially, psychiatric disorders in a child born with the infection.

The researchers caution that more studies are needed to confirm these findings, to search for the factors behind any strongly supported links, and to more precisely define the actual risks of developing psychiatric disorders from exposing infants and children under age 13 to pet cats and dogs.

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Source: Johns Hopkins Medicine via www.sciencedaily.com

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