Mind’s Best Friend: Hanging With Dogs In Childhood May Prevent Schizophrenia

BALTIMORE — Dogs tend to be ultra protective of their human counterparts, and according to a new study, it turns out they even have a protective effect on our brains! According to researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine, spending time with dogs as a child lowers one’s chances of developing schizophrenia as an adult.

If any cat owners out there are wondering if the same can be said for felines, unfortunately the research team say it is unclear if cats promote the same mental benefits as dogs.

“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,” says lead author Dr. Robert Yolken in a release.

Researchers investigated the relationship between having a pet dog or cat during childhood (first 12 years of life) and adulthood diagnosis of both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Regarding schizophrenia, they were surprised to see such a robust decrease in one’s chances of developing the disease if they enjoyed the company of a dog as a child. However, dogs didn’t seem to have any protective benefit regarding bipolar disorder, and cats didn’t appear to influence the onset of either disorder.

All in all, the study’s authors believe further research should be conducted to definitively confirm their conclusions, and possibly identify the actual reasons why dogs have this effect on the human mind.

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It’s already been established that living with pet dogs or cats as a young child can cause immune system changes linked to allergic responses, exposure to animal bacteria and viruses, changes in a home’s microbiome, and stress reduction on the brain’s chemistry. While some of those may sound like negatives, in all likelihood these changes do more good than harm.

Such observations have led some researchers to theorize that this “immune modulation” can influence a child’s risk of developing mental issues or disorders that they may already be genetically, or otherwise, predisposed to suffer from later in life.

After analyzing a large population sample of 1,371 men and women between the ages of 18-65 (396 with schizophrenia, 381 with bipolar disorder, and 595 controls), it was found that individuals who lived with a dog before their 13th birthday were as much as 24% less likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“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,” Dr. Yolken adds.

Moreover, according to Dr. Yolken, if the study’s findings are indeed statistically accurate, that would mean that roughly 840,000 schizophrenia diagnoses (24% of 3.5 million) in the U.S. could have been avoided if those people had grown up with a dog!

“There are several plausible explanations for this possible ‘protective’ effect from contact with dogs — perhaps something in the canine microbiome that gets passed to humans and bolsters the immune system against or subdues a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia,” Dr. Yolken theorizes.

The study is published in the scientific journal PLOS One.

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