If your child is nagging to get a dog, then hear them out. Dog ownership is a great idea, but not for the reasons you might think.
Yes, childhood contact with dogs teaches respect, responsibility, social skills, and improves fitness, but the positive benefits also stretch into adulthood with a reduced risk of developing schizophrenia.
50% Lower Chance of Schizophrenia
A new study shows us that dog ownership (but not cat guardianship…more of this later) in early life cuts the risk of schizophrenia by up to 50%. This amazing fact comes with provisos, but none-the-less, for certain age groups this is absolutely true.
Published in December 2019 the research study results show:
- Households with a dog at the time of the child’s birth or before their second birthday, had 50% less chance of a schizophrenia diagnosis as an adult
- The presence of a dog before the child’s 12th birthday reduced the chances of schizophrenia by 25%.
How Can This Be?
First, a quick disclaimer, I’m a vet, not a psychologist or psychiatrist, and don’t claim to be knowledgeable about schizophrenia.
As a layperson, it seems no definitive cause of schizophrenia (a serious mental disorder) has been identified. As the NHS explains “The exact causes of schizophrenia are unknown. Research suggests a combination of physical, genetic, psychological and environmental factors can make a person more likely to develop the condition.”
One thought is there may be genes coding for schizophrenia. In part this hunch is down to the condition seeming to run in families. But despite extensive research, the smoking gun of a genome that all sufferers share has not been found.
The Perfect Storm
This has lead medics to surmise that schizophrenia may be the mental health equivalent of a perfect storm, where several factors must align in order to trigger an effect. These ‘other factors’ are thought to include
- The physical environment the child lives in,
- The growth and development of their nervous system
- The role of inflammation within the body.
What this means is if a child grows up in an environment that stimulates abnormal inflammation in the body, it may have a bad effect on the growth of the nervous system.
A Lesson from Asthma
If this sounds far-fetched, remember that studies have proven owning a pet in early life reduces the risk of certain allergies, such as asthma. The theory here is that an early work out for the immune system (from all that doggy dander), knocks it into better shape. Much like a gym-session builds your muscles. So owning a dog or cat as a toddler gets the immune system fit. Then when it does encounter pollen or another allergen in later life, it doesn’t over-react.
Young children are growing the fastest. So is there a link between exposure to dogs (even as a baby in the womb via the mother’s immune system) when the child is growing the fastest. This hints at dog ownership somehow affecting how body systems develop.
Scientists don’t have the answers, but have come up with ideas as to how this happens.
- Exposure to dogs stimulates the developing immune system in a beneficial way (getting it ‘fitter’ early on) which then benefits how the brain grows and is wired.
- Early exposure to dogs reduces stress, which benefits brain development
- An as yet undetected microbial agent (such as special bacteria) is passed from dog to baby, which then protects the brain.
Dogs but Not Cats
If this wasn’t amazing enough, another mind-bending finding was that cats as pets did not give the same benefit. But according to this study, only dogs (and not cats) reduce the schizophrenia risk.
To my mind you can therefore cross of the stress-reducing theory, since a purring cat is one of the most relaxing things I’m aware of. A cat napping on a lap is much less stressful than a dog chewing a memory stick belonging to your husband (it happens…)
Cat Owner Risks
In fact, cat ownership is linked to a slightly higher risk of schizophrenia. The explanation for this is more certain in the feline parasite, Toxoplasma. Cats catch this infection by eating vermin or raw meat infected with Toxo.
For only a short time after initial infection the cat sheds a form of this parasite in their poop. If an unfortunate owner ingests contaminated feces (by not washing their hand after emptying the litter box), there is a small risk of infection.
For the vast majority of people, Toxoplasma infection produces nothing worse than mild flu-like symptoms that go away of their own accord. But for certain people (those with a weak immune system or pregnant women) Toxoplasmosis can have more serious consequences.
One of these complications in people is the Toxo parasite setting up shop in the brain; causing symptoms of schizophrenia (perhaps due to brain inflammation…which brings us full circle back to inflammation and the policing effect of the immune system.)
A Sense of Proportion
Cat owners – don’t panic!
The benefits of pet ownership far outweigh the risks. Toxo sounds scary, but catching this condition from a cat is very rare. Most people acquire infection from garden soil or eating unwashed vegetables, which I guess isn’t terribly reassuring!
In Praise of Pets: The Hygiene Hypothesis
The take home message is “Pets are good for kids.”
In an increasing disinfected, sterile world early exposure to a dog is a good thing. There’s something about pets in general that helps the immune system grow strong and fit for purpose. Proof of this is the decrease in asthma rates, and now researchers are on the cusp of proving another benefit that early dog ownership improves adult brain health. .