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Your Pet Is Your Immunity Shield

Written by Dr. Naveeda Adam on Wed, 16 November 2022

Key Highlights

  • As per 2021 statistics, pet ownership has grown exponentially in Southeast Asia over the last one decade, with Philippines having 67% of dog ownership rate, Vietnam 53%, and Thailand 47%.
  • Pets help boost human immunity by lowering the stress hormone cortisol (which in excess can reduce the body's ability to fight antigens), and boosting the love hormone oxytocin.
  • Children who live with a dog or cat for the first year of their life, have lesser chances of contracting asthma, pneumonia and bronchiolitis than the kids who do not have such exposure.
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Human immunity: A brief introduction

Nature has gifted the human body with an intricate mechanism comprising of cells, organs, and chemicals that help us fob off external agents like bacteria, viruses, parasites and accompanying diseases before they can turn fatal for our existence.

Our immune system has a wonderful memory that is activated through its B- and T-Lymphocytes, which are white blood cells that memorize every antigen it defeats so that it can tackle the same if it invades our body again. B-lymphocytes get triggered to create antibodies (immunoglobins), that latch onto specific antigens. Then, the T-cells function as 'killer cells' to destroy those antigens.

We have three types of immunity viz. innate, adaptive, and passive.

  • Innate immunity is the one we're born with, and is the first line of defense against harmful antigens. Enzymes, immune system cells, skin, mucus are all the various components of the innate immune system.
  • Adaptive immunity is created over our lifespan as we keep getting exposed to diseases, or get vaccinated against them.
  • Passive immunity is temporary in nature and is acquired from an external source such as breast milk or colostrum.

Health benefits of pets

By now, it is a known fact that having pets can prove to be a blessing in many ways than one. The most-domesticated animals like cats and dogs are known to provide fruitful companionship, joy, and emotional succor to their owners. In fact, it is a well-documented fact that pet adoption whizzed up exponentially in Southeast Asian countries like Philippines, as well as in India and the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Isolated for long periods during the multiple lockdowns, pet-owners got a 'protective' effect on their mental health as they felt less lonely, more connected, and found a proactive distraction from negative thoughts in their pets' antics.

Pets are known to bring along several health benefits for the body and mind. For instance, taking a dog out for a walk helps the owner maintain one's fitness levels in numerous ways such as:

  • It increases your cardio endurance, reduces the risk of heart diseases, cuts down excessive cholesterol, and lowers blood pressure levels.
  • It also helps enhance your social network because you inevitably end up meeting other like-minded people when you take the dog for a walk. This in turn helps lower stress levels and boost immunity.
  • Pets help you lighten up, provide companionship, and help create a structure to your life via their feeding and bathing schedules.

1. Pets - Your immunity boosters!

Apart from the abovementioned benefits, pets are a huge boost to the human immune system in multiple ways. It is difficult to believe this, because most of us grow up hearing that pets can pose health problems due to their hair or saliva.

While this is not entirely baseless, there are simple precautions that can negate these issues. The immunity benefits that pets provide are far more and better in comparison.

2. Pets help to enhance the microbiome diversity of our intestines

More than 80% of our immune functions happen in our intestines, and the mouth is the gateway to this part of the human body that beholds maximum immunity. The quality of our gut microbiome depends on internal and external factors.

Several researches have shown that exposure to pets - especially household furry pets - improves the diversity and richness of our gut microbiome, which in turn has positive effects on our immunity.

While we strive to keep ourselves clean from microbes by using disinfectants and sanitizers, not all microbes are bad. In fact, a bevy of microbes that get transferred from a pet's saliva, skin, hair and even feces, are actually beneficial for human beings. They change the way in which the microbes in our body respond.

For instance, some animal microbes influence the manner in which the bacteria in our gut metabolize the neurotransmitters impacting our moods and other mental functions in a more positive way. Animal microbes are also seen to reduce the risk of atopic diseases, allergic diseases, and metabolic diseases in human beings.

3. Pets get you more physical activity

The level of physical activity one indulges in while having a pet is definitely more than that of people not having pets. Be it taking your dog out for a walk or playing with your cat, pets inevitably make you shed a sedentary lifestyle in favour of a more active one.

Apart from enhancing your cardio endurance, calibrated physical exercise helps boost your immunity. Exposure to fresh air helps throw out the cold-cough causing bacteria from the respiratory pathways.

A nominal rise in our body temperature that happens due to physical exercise, helps prevent new bacteria from festering. Exercise also help our antibodies and WBCs circulate faster through our body, thus helping them detect prevalent infections quicker.

4. Pets help alleviate stress

Stress is antithetic to our core immunity - especially chronic stress, which reduces the body's ability to fight infections and makes us more susceptible to illnesses; and suppresses the efficacy of the immune system by lowering the number of lymphocytes.

  • Pets can be a big value-addition for alleviating stress and related problems like depression and anxiety. Interaction with animals helps to lower the stress-hormone cortisol, and trigger the release of the neurotransmitter called serotonin, which elevates the mood and also reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases with prolonged interaction.
  • The chemistry shared by pets and their owners helps to release the hormone oxytocin. Popularly known as the 'love hormone', oxytocin is what is released when a mother holds her baby. Oxytocin is a feel-good hormone that helps human lower their anxiety, enhance trust, and elevate overall mood. Cuddling, stroking, or simply bonding with a pet can enhance the production of oxytocin and also promote healthy sleep - another factor for boosting immunity.
  • Studies show that stroking a pet can also help release certain immunoglobins, especially IgA. IgA can help reduce the risk of contracting several ailments ranging from infections of the eyes, ears, and skin, to auto-immune diseases and pneumonia.

5. Early exposure, enhanced immunity

Parents are usually fearful of exposing babies and children to pets due to the risk of bites, scratches, and illnesses like asthma they may trigger. However, good news is that the earlier a child is exposed to pets, the better his/her immunity becomes.

Every parent strives to offer their child a clean, sanitized, and sterile environment because the immune system of newborns and little children is not developed enough to fight potent infections and illnesses.

While this is certainly commendable, recent studies have shown that growing up in overtly-sterile environments can actually have an adverse effect on a child's immune system. If children are not exposed to a certain amount and types of infectious agents, parasites, and symbiotic micro-organisms, the natural development of their immune system remains stunted, thus making them prone to catch allergies and infections faster than others.

How pets can help your baby develop better immunity

As seen above, exposure to pets can enhance the microbiome diversity of the human body. The earlier this exposure, the better the diversity of the gut microbiome that a human grows up with, thus making for a robust immune system.

  • If babies and infants are exposed to pets - more so, dogs - in their prenatal stage or new-born stage, their tendency of becoming prone to allergic diseases reduces exponentially. Such kids grow up having reduced risk of ear infections and respiratory tract infections.
  • While parents are rightfully concerned about their babies' exposure to animal hair, fur, and feces, if the pet's hygiene is maintained well, exposure to furry pets actually helps develop the ruminococcus and oscillospira bacteria in their gut, which helps reduce their risk of obesity and allergies.
  • Mothers exposed to furry animals during pregnancy, go on to have babies with reduced risk of eczema.
  • Pets also have a very positive, calming effect on the child's mind. It helps in raising emotionally-intelligent children with better ability to form social bonds, positive self-image, and confidence. Children's systems are not mature enough to handle a lot of stress. Their immune systems go awry if exposed to excessive stress. On this backdrop, having a pet helps lower their stress and strengthen their core immunity in the bargain.

Keep your pet healthy to bolster immunity

While it is true that pets can help build your immune system, ultimately, they are also living organisms that carry a host of infections with themselves too.

There are two ways to protect ourselves from these infections:

  • Choose your pet wisely
  • Maintain the pet's hygiene and vaccination

It is not just dogs and cats that people keep as pets at home. The pet portfolio also includes birds, fishes, rabbits, rodents like hamsters & guinea pigs, and reptiles like iguanas and tortoises. Farm animals like donkeys, cows and hens too find a place of pride as pets in some homes.

All animals carry the risk of transmitting zoonotic pathogens to human beings through bites, scratches, saliva, urine and feces. Reptiles and amphibians carry salmonella bacteria which can be transferred to humans while they clean the aquarium.

The good news is that most of the infections caused by zoonotic pathogens are either less in incidence, or less severe, or both. Usually, zoonotic pathogens can cause fever, vomiting, and diarrhea.

However, pregnant women, elderly people, babies, and people with compromised immune systems are at risk for getting severe effects such as meningitis (in new-born babies) and endocarditis. Some zoonotic diseases are common to both, humans and animals. These include emerging coronaviruses, Lyme disease, and rabies, among others.

Zoonotic diseases can be prevented with simple measures such as:

  • washing hands and face after handling an animal
  • maintaining a clean, well-ventilated environment
  • not letting the pet's urine and feces to lie in the open for long
  • wearing rubber gloves while cleaning fish tanks, tortoise tubs, cages, or stables
  • trimming your pet's nails, hair, and fur from time to time
  • not letting the pet's hair and fur lay on your bed or pillows
  • keeping their bedding separate from yours
  • being updated vis-a-vis the pet's vaccination and regular health checkups by a veterinarian.

These measures will not just protect you from contracting zoonotic infections, but will also allow your pet to grow up healthy and disease-free, thus boosting the overall immunity quotient of your household.

Can immunocompromised people keep pets?

Immunocompromised people are those suffering from HIV infections/AIDS, autoimmune diseases like lupus and type-1 diabetes, and cancers including leukemia and lymphoma; people who have undergone organ transplant or bone marrow transplant; and people with alcohol usage disorder.

While pets provide an emotional outlet for the stress borne by these people, they're also at a higher risk of contracting infections from the pet. Hence, it's a catch-22 situation; but, if due care is taken, immunocompromised people can also have pets and remain relatively healthy.

  • If you're immunocompromised, try not to adopt a pet from sources where its provenance is not known. If the pet is already carrying certain pathogens, you may get more easily affected by it than others.
  • Speak to a vet before getting a pet. Follow up with its health check-ups and vaccines after getting the pet. Ideally, get an animal that is not younger than 1 year. They tend to scratch and bite more than the elder ones.
  • Get your pet surgically neutered or spayed to reduce its chances of carrying infections.
  • Strictly follow hygienic practices while cleaning the pet's bedding, accommodation, or feces. If you pet shows any sign of illness, do not waste time in taking them to a vet.

The connection between having a pet and immunity is now well-established. So, if you have been toying with the idea of getting a fur baby for a while now, get one home rightaway! There is no better way to boost your immunity naturally. Additional bonus: cuddles and licks!

Read for more ways to strengthen your immune system!

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Dr. Naveeda Adam

Dr Naveeda Adam is currently Medical Officer of the Gastrology Department at the Muhimbili National Hospital, Dar es Salam, Tanzania.

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