The Benefits of Having a Pet: How Furry Friends Boost Microbiome Diversity and Prevent Disease

June 6, 2023

Exposure to a wide array of germs and bacteria at a young age is a key factor in the formation of a healthy immune system. Now studies are showing that children who grow up with furry pets have a reduced risk of developing autoimmune diseases like asthma due to their exposure to germs by way of animals in the home.

If this seems counterintuitive that makes sense, we have been conditioned to believe bacteria are bad and that we should reduce our exposure to them wherever possible. This blog will cover why that isn’t the case in the following sections:

  • Why having a pet is good for you
  • The hygiene hypothesis
  • The microbes we’re missing out on
  • Alternatives to having a pet
  • More on the benefits of bacteria

Are pets the key to a healthy life? We discuss below.

Why having a pet is good for you

Pets can boost your mood, provide companionship and, it turns out, they may also help stave off disease and autoimmune conditions. This is due to the bacterial diversity they expose you to. And rich bacterial exposure, especially at a young age, is key to the healthy development of the immune system.

The indoor microbiome

The indoor microbiome is the plethora of germs and bacteria that exist in our homes, places of work and any other indoor area we occupy. The indoor microbiome is emerging as an important factor in microbiome health, especially since we spend an increasing amount of time indoors.

We want to live in clean, organized spaces but that might actually be harming us rather than helping us. By over cleaning and attempting to banish all dirt we have reduced biological diversity in these spaces – which is bad for our microbiomes.

How pets bring us bacterial life

Pets do a lot of things we would never do as humans. Roll in the mud, sniff poop, eat unidentified morsels of “food” off the street. It’s gross and we would never do it ourselves but we should be grateful they do. As it turns out, all that activity provides them with a diversity of microbes that they in bring into our homes, making our homes healthier places to live.

Dogs vs cats

This isn’t so much a dogs vs. cats thing, as it is an indoor vs. outdoor pet thing. In order for pets to pass on to us the many beneficial germs and bacteria they do, they need to go outside. So if you have an indoor cat, chances are you’re not getting the same benefits as you would if you have a dog or a cat that wanders the streets and only to come home for food, water and cuddles.

The hygiene hypothesis

The hygiene hypothesis is the idea that growing up in a too clean environment can lead to problems like asthma, hay fever and other conditions. The hypothesis was introduced in the 1980’s by David P. Strachan and has since been backed by scientific study.

Exposure to a diversity of germs and bacteria early on in life can help strengthen the immune system rather than hurt it. Those that have lack of exposure to such environments have less prepared immune systems when presented with a legitimate threat.

Bacteria poor environments

Bacteria poor environments are those with a lack of bacterial diversity. This can be a good thing in some cases, ie. Hospitals, but as it turns out, having bacterial diversity is quite important to our living and working quarters. A lack of such diversity can leave one vulnerable to allergies when thrust into a more bacteria and germ laden environment.

Early exposure to diverse bacteria

The idea behind the hygiene hypothesis is that in order for the immune system to develop properly it must be trained. It does so by being exposed to lesser irritants early on, allowing it to build up its ability to fight off infection when the threat of one comes along. When there is no training the body uses its other defense mechanisms, attacking intruders even if those “intruders” aren’t intruders at all - otherwise known as allergies.

The microbes we’re missing out on

By avoiding bacteria we are missing out on the potential of millions of good bacteria that can actually benefit our health. We are losing microbial diversity generation by generation and there may soon be no way to recover from the losses. Some have even suggested creating a bacterial vault to save us from our lack of microbes.

The benefit of further bacteria and germ exposure has been demonstrated in a study examining Amish and Hutterite population in the United States.

Amish children have less asthma

A study that examined the farming practices and lifestyle of Amish and Hutterites living in the US, found that Amish children were less likely to develop asthma. The two groups have very similar lifestyle patterns with one major difference. The Amish use traditional farming techniques, living in close proximity to barnyard animals, while the Hutterites utilize industrialized farming techniques, providing a degree of separation from the animals.

This study fits nicely into the hygiene hypothesis, suggesting that exposure to a greater diversity of bacteria and germs provides benefits to the health of children. And though we can’t all live on an Amish farm we can provide ourselves with some of the benefits experienced by such living quarters by owning a pet.

Alternatives to having a pet

Though we have outlined why having a pet is great, it is not great for everyone. If you can’t have a pet or don’t want one there are other measures that can be taken to increase your exposure to healthy bacteria. Try getting out more or just being okay with living a little less clean.

Get outdoors more

We should all probably get outdoors more but there is another huge reason to do so and that is to strengthen our microbiomes. It is impossible to build a healthy, diverse microbiome without exposure to microbes. And since most of us are living in clean indoor environments and probably don’t want to live in filth the next best thing we can do is get out more and smell the flowers, or the dirt.

Put down the disinfectants

We are beginning to appreciate all the bacteria around and in us does for our health; now we also need to acknowledge that we are perhaps killing off too many of them with our cleaning practices. Studies have pointed to use of heavy disinfectants as a contributor to childhood obesity, and who knows what other effects our obsession with sanitation is having on our health.

All that said, switching to natural cleaners or just using a little less bleach, is an easy way to give our microbiomes a healthy break.

More on the benefits of bacteria

Are Pets the New Probiotic? - The New York Times

Read more about how pets presence in the home benefits microbiome health and immune system development.

What is Dysbiosis: How Bacteria in Your Body Disrupts Your Health

Learn more about the consequences of a microbiome lacking diversity. Dysbiosis of the microbiome can lead to more than just asthma and obesity.

Fecal Transplant Guide: How They Work and What They Can Cure

Fecal microbiota transplants are being explored as a method to treat microbiome associated illnesses. Learn how doctors attempting to repopulate the microbiomes of chronically ill individuals.

Household cleaning products may contribute to kids' overweight by altering their gut microbiota

We may be killing bacteria to the detriment of our own health. Learn how household cleaners may be contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic and asthma.