Babies who grow up with dogs and cats have a lower risk of respiratory tract illnesses in their first year of life, according to this Finnish study.

Researchers followed a group of 397 babies from before birth until age 1. Starting when the babies were nine weeks old, parents filled out weekly diaries recording the baby’s health and contact with dogs and cats.

Babies in homes with dogs – and to a lesser extent cats – had lower risk of respiratory infections and the need to use antibiotics than babies with no contact with dogs. Those babies were 44% less likely to get ear infections and 29% less likely to need antibiotics.

One interesting finding, reported in the Reuters news item, was that the greatest protection was seen among babies who had zero to six hours per day of contact with dogs.

This findings support the “hygiene hypothesis.” In these families the dog may have spent more time out of doors, so it could be bringing more dirt and germs into the house, which challenge the baby’s immune system and make it better at defend against respiratory illnesses.

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