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Asthma Treatment with a Tail? Dogs Might be Your Lungs’ Best Friend

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In the early 1960s, my uncle was around 10 years old and suffering from asthma. His breathing was getting worse, and none of the conventional medical asthma treatment methods seemed to be helping.

Then his doctor suggested a new type of asthma treatment – one that wagged its tail, barked and slobbered. The prescription was to adopt a dog, specifically a Chihuahua - and to sleep with it every night. Cha Cha the Chihuahua was welcomed into the family with full bed privileges. My uncle’s asthma went away and never came back.

Could Man’s Best Friend also be a kid’s best protection against asthma? New research shows that living with a dog that’s allowed outside may protect children against asthma as well as allergies. Besides giving a sturdy argument to any child who wants a dog for a pet, these new findings are adding to the growing body of research that illuminate the importance of bacteria in the human gut.

Funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the new study (published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) focuses on mice. Exposing them to dust from households with “outside dogs” greatly affected the composition of microbes in their guts. After exposure, the mice were then presented with well-known allergy triggers. Those that were exposed to dog dust experienced significantly reduced allergic responses compared to control mice. Are humans affected in the same way too?

Babies quickly develop a diverse culture of bacteria in their gut during their first few years of life – a gastrointestinal microbiome that is as unique as their fingerprints. Mingling with outdoor dogs and the filth they carry around may help the gastrointestinal tracts of babies to produce a better immune response. This would make the babies less sensitive to many types of allergens, including the inflammatory reactions that cause asthma.

Our gastrointestinal microbiome (or gut bacteria) may play a bigger role in our lives than we think, affecting not only our immune systems but also our metabolism and other major bodily processes. Certain bacteria (such as Lactobacillus johnsonii) that dogs can transmit are strongly identified with an enhanced immune response. Perhaps dog slobber isn’t so bad after all.

But don’t start licking your dog’s chew toys just yet. Further research needs to be done to determine the precise cause-and-effect relationship between bacteria and allergens, and whether the studies on mice also hold true for humans.

However, if you have a child with asthma or allergies, it may be worth it to consult your allergist about this interesting research. Remember that getting dirty can be good for your children’s immune systems. Exposing them to an array of microbes will create a diverse and robust gastrointestinal microbiome, which will enhance their health through life.

Dogs also make their owners more active, reduce blood pressure and alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. Before adopting a dog, consult your local veterinarian to determine which breeds are right for your family and lifestyle. Your local animal shelter will be happy to set you up with the right match – slobber and all.

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 Image: greg westfall

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