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Exposure To Dogs At A Young Age May Lessen The Risk Of Developing Schizophrenia

Dogs are man's best friend - there is no denying that and there needs no scientific proof either. Studies have reported that spending time with your furry friend can help improve your mood and reduce stress as well. Dogs have been shown to help lower our stress-related hormones, within just 5 minutes of interaction with them[1] .

Playing with a dog raises our levels of serotonin and dopamine, the hormones that calm and relax the nervous system. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it was revealed that a pet dog may protect children from anxiety [2] .

Numerous studies have brought forth the similar findings that pets, especially dogs and cats, can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and playfulness, and even improve your cardiovascular health [3] [4] .

In a recent study, it was ascertained that man's best friend can help lessen the chance of developing schizophrenia as an adult.


Early-life Exposure Leads To Low Risk Of Schizophrenia

A study conducted by a group of researchers at the Johns Hopkins Medicine explored the role of dogs in an individual's mental health and found that exposure at an early age may have a health benefit - reduced chance of developing schizophrenia as an adult.

The research head stated, "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 Explored The Relationship Between A Pet Cat And Dog

The researchers investigated the impact of exposure to a household pet cat or dog during the first 12 years of a human being's life with that of a later diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The researchers developed an understanding that for schizophrenia, there was a statistically significant decrease in the risk of a person developing the disorder if exposed to a dog early in life.

The study also revealed that there were no significant links between dogs and bipolar disorder, or between cats and either psychiatric disorder.


Researchers Link The Findings With Immune Modulation

Earlier studies had revealed that early life exposures to pet cats and dog may alter the immune system of an individual, such as their allergic responses, contact with zoonotic (animal) bacteria and viruses, changes in a home's microbiome, and pet-induced stress reduction effects on human brain chemistry.

The researchers ascertained that it could be due to this modification of an individual's immune system or immune modulation that result in altering the risk of developing psychiatric disorders to which a person is genetically predisposed.

The findings suggested that individuals who were exposed to a pet dog before their 13th birthday are significantly less likely to be diagnosed later with schizophrenia. The researcher said, "the largest apparent protective effect was found for children who had a household pet dog at birth or were first exposed after birth but before age 3."


Exposure To Cats At Early-life Linked With The Risk Of Disorders

The researchers found a slightly increased risk of developing both disorders for those who were first in contact with cats between the ages of 9 and 12, which indicates that the time of exposure may be critical to whether or not it alters the risk.

To support their claims, the researchers linked the risk of mental disorders with that of a suspected pet-borne trigger for schizophrenia is the disease toxoplasmosis, a condition in which cats are the primary hosts of a parasite transmitted to humans via the animals' faeces.


On A Final Note…

Pregnant women have been advised for years not to change cat litter boxes, to avoid the risk of the illness passing through the placenta to their foetuses and causing a miscarriage, stillbirth, or potentially, psychiatric disorders in a child born with the infection.

The researchers pointed out that more and extensive studies are required to confirm the findings and to ascertain the factors behind the link between dogs and reduced risk of schizophrenia.

View Article References
  1. [1] Herzog, H. (2018). Do Children With Cats Have More Mental Health Problems?.
  2. [2] Brooks, H. L., Rushton, K., Lovell, K., Bee, P., Walker, L., Grant, L., & Rogers, A. (2018). The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence. BMC psychiatry, 18(1), 31.
  3. [3] Hui Gan, G. Z., Hill, A. M., Yeung, P., Keesing, S., & Netto, J. A. (2019). Pet ownership and its influence on mental health in older adults. Aging & Mental Health, 1-8.
  4. [4] Brooks, H., Rushton, K., Walker, S., Lovell, K., & Rogers, A. (2016). Ontological security and connectivity provided by pets: a study in the self-management of the everyday lives of people diagnosed with a long-term mental health condition. BMC psychiatry, 16(1), 409.
Story first published: Friday, January 3, 2020, 19:00 [IST]
Read more about: dogs schizophrenia mental health
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