Children in contact with dogs less at risk of developing schizophrenia

Owning and generally dealing with a dog can be good for the psyche of human beings and several studies have shown this. A new study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine, however, shows that positive effects can also be had on children with regard to the risk of developing schizophrenia. And this would not even concern the psychological profile but rather the microbiome of the body that would be altered by the same continuous contact with the animal during a critical phase such as childhood.

The new study was published in PLOS One. Explaining the reasons for this study is Robert Yolken himself, professor of neurovirology in paediatrics at the aforementioned institute and main author of the study: “Serious psychiatric disorders have been associated with changes in the immune system linked to environmental exposures in early childhood, and since 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 things”.

The researchers studied the effects of exposure of more than 1,000 subjects during their first 12 years of life to a cat or pet dog in relation to any subsequent diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. For schizophrenia, researchers found a “statistically significant” reduction of up to 24% in the risk of schizophrenia if the child had regular contact with a dog during early childhood.

They found no significant links between dogs and the risk of developing bipolar disorder or between cats and the risk of developing both disorders. The researchers themselves state that further studies will need to be carried out to fully understand these links but earlier studies had already identified that exposure of children in early childhood to domestic dogs and cats can alter their immune systems in various ways, including allergies and changes in the microbiome of the domestic environment.

It is probably an “immune modulation”, as the Yolken himself calls it, which evidently seems to be able to alter, for the better, the risk of developing psychiatric disorders to which an individual may be genetically or for other reasons predisposed. Yolken also hypothesizes that something that is part of the dog’s microbiome is transmitted to humans by strengthening the latter’s immune system or otherwise limiting the subject’s own genetic predisposition to schizophrenia.

“The greatest apparent protective effect has been found for children who have had a pet dog at birth or have been exposed for the first time after birth but before the age of 3,” the researcher reports again.

Last updated: January 16, 2020

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