Sci&Tech Writer Madison Harding-White reports new research suggesting further benefits from man’s best friend
Many of us will support the notion that dogs have a positive impact upon our lives. Our four-legged friends provide us with a constant, non-judgemental, and often needed source of unconditional love. Beyond the adorable online videos and anecdotes for evidence, Harvard Medical School promotes dog ownership – with those owning four-legged friends found to be calmer, more social and overall more present in their lives. But beyond improvements in general wellbeing, novel research from Yolken and colleagues suggest that dogs may do more for a mental health than previously realised- including reducing our risk of developing the hallucination and delusion inducing disorder schizophrenia.
Sourcing both patients with the mood disorder bipolar and schizophrenia from inpatient and rehabilitation programmes, 1,371 males and females aged 18-65 with either one of the disorders or none (healthy controls) reported on whether they have owned cats or dogs during the first 12 years of their lives. In first-time results, analyses revealed that when individuals had been exposed to pet dog ownership before their 13th birthday they were 24% less likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia later in their life, compared those who owned no animal or those who owned a cat. The largest protective effect for schizophrenia was identified in those who began their dog ownership prior to the 3rd birthday, whilst no protective nor offensive relationship was found between dog ownership and the later development of bipolar disorder.
Although these results may seem unexpected to some, exposure to dogs during the early years of one’s life alters the environment they are exposed to- a key factor in influencing individuals later development of psychological dysfunction. Exposure to canine bacteria and viruses, triggered allergy responses, changes to the house microbiome (microorganism community) and relaxation related brain chemistry changes have all been linked to the alteration of the human immune response, which could in turn provide ‘protection’ against some diseases. Although the exact mechanism behind the study’s results remain unclear, it has been theorised that dogs may pass ‘something’ within their microbiome to humans which strengthens the immune system or perhaps even overpowers genetic predispositions to schizophrenia.
So, should we everyone swap their Tabbies for Terriers in order to reduce their children’s chances of developing schizophrenia? Not quite. Although this research does provide us with interesting, new findings it has not yet been replicated- meaning we cannot be certain of the reliability of any conclusions. Further research is needed to demonstrate the same results across a variety of populations in addition to formulating a better understanding of the underpinning mechanisms before any these results can be proposed as certain.