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article imageOwning a dog as a child lowers the risk of schizophrenia

By Tim Sandle     Jan 1, 2020 in Science
It seems that growing up with a dog in the household could have a benefit in later life, for early-exposure to dogs appears to lower the risk of developing schizophrenia. The same effect is, interestingly, not present with early-exposure to cats.
The connection may, according to psychological research from Johns Hopkins Medicine, to the way people interact with their dogs and the role of the dog in terms of providing the owner with companionship and emotional well-being.
For the research, scientists looked into the connection between exposure to a household pet (both cats and dogs) during the first twelve years of life and correlated this with later diagnosis of schizophrenia as well as bipolar disorder.
In the case of schizophrenia, there was found to be a statistically significant decrease in the possibility of a person developing schizophrenia if they were exposed to a dog early in life.
With bipolar disorder there was no significant difference. Neither was there any difference when it came to exposure to cats, in the case of either psychiatric disorder. These inferences were drawn from a data set composed of 1,371 men and women, who were aged between 18 and 65. This group was composed of 396 people with schizophrenia, 381 with bipolar disorder and 594 controls (that is, no diagnosed psychiatric condition). Each person was assessed to see if they had owned a dog or cat during the first twelve years of their lives.
The scientists state that that further research is needed to confirm whether the positive correlation is reproducible. Moreover, they need to dig deeper in order to assess what might be causing this effect.
One possibility for exploration is the impact upon the immune system. Biological data indicates that the immune system alters for people in households with pets. This includes the way the body responds to allergens; how the immune system reacts to contact with bacteria and viruses that are associated with animals; and how the human microbiome alters.
From the psychological perspective, there is data that suggests growing up in a home with animals helps to reduce stress and there is some alteration to human brain chemistry.
Lead researcher Professor Robert Yolken outlines the basis for undertaking the study: “Serious psychiatric disorders have been associated with alterations in the immune system linked to environmental exposures in early life, and since household 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.”
The study is reported to the journal PLoS One, in a paper headed “Exposure to household pet cats and dogs in childhood and risk of subsequent diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.”
More about Schizophrenia, Dogs, Immunology
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