Being around a dog and/or cat may help keep the doctor away, according to a new Pediatrics journal study that found exposure to pets in early life helps prevent infections.

The key is to be around a cat or dog (or both) during the first year of life. If you are planning a family, you might then consider adding a pet or more to your clan.

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Eija Bergroth, a pediatrician at the Kuopio University Hospital in Finland, and colleagues tracked 397 children from pregnancy onward, focusing on the frequency of the kids' respiratory symptoms and infections, together with information about dog and cat contacts during their first year of life.

The info was collected by using weekly diaries and a questionnaire. All of the children were born in eastern or middle Finland between September 2002 and May 2005.

The researchers discovered that children having pets at home were healthier (i.e., had fewer respiratory tract symptoms or infections) than children with no pet contacts. The study looked at dogs and cats, probably because they are the most common household pets, but I'm guessing any furry mammal pet would do the trick.

Additionally, kids with a dog or cat at home "tended to need fewer courses of antibiotics than children without such contacts," the researchers wrote. Also, "both the weekly amount of contact with dogs and cats and the average yearly amount of contact were associated with decreased respiratory infectious disease morbidity."

 "Our findings support the theory that during the first year of life, animal contacts are important, possibly leading to better resistance to infectious respiratory illnesses during childhood," the scientists concluded.

Some people are more allergic to pets than others, so having a dog or cat in those cases wouldn't be recommended. Most people, however, should benefit from pet ownership.

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The question now is, how do pets achieve the health-promoting feat? My guess is that it's a form of homeopathy, wherein exposure to something builds resistance in the individual.

It's also fun to think that nature/the powers that be simply want to bring kids and pets together. The study didn't even get into the mental health benefits of pet ownership, which you can read more about here. Dogs additionally motivate people to exercise. That perk goes far beyond childhood.

(Image credit: Puravida)