Food allergies in kids seem to be on the rise, about 8% of children in the U.S. have a food allergy, which is roughly double the percentage who did in 2007. While it’s not entirely clear why more kids are being diagnosed with food allergies, both in the U.S. and worldwide, a lot of research is being done on how to treat or prevent them. And a new study finds a surprising strategy that could help: pets.
Researchers in Japan looked at 66-thousand kids who are part of the ongoing Japan Environment and Children’s Study and whose moms shared information about their pet exposure and food allergies. They found that exposure to cats or dogs during pregnancy or as a young infant is associated with a lower risk of developing food allergies. These kids were around 15% less likely to develop allergies to common triggers, including eggs, milk, wheat, soybeans, and nuts by age three, than kids who don’t have pets.
Dogs who are kept inside are associated with a bigger risk reduction than outside dogs. And other pets, like hamsters, turtles and birds - don’t seem to provide the same benefits. Scientists admit they don’t fully understand the link between being exposed to animals and food allergies, but one theory is that living with pets alters babies’ microbiomes in a way that protects them from food sensitivities. This study can’t prove cause and effect, so there may be some other explanation for the link between pets and lower rates of food allergies, and more research needs to be done to say for sure.