New Delhi: Being around dogs from an early age may lessen the chance of developing schizophrenia as an adult, according to a new study. And while Fido may help prevent the condition, the jury is still out on whether or not there’s any link, positive or negative, between being raised with Fluffy the cat and later developing either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
“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 Robert Yolken, chair of the Stanley Division of Pediatric Neurovirology and professor of neurovirology in pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University Children’s Center.
For schizophrenia, the researchers were surprised to see a statistically significant decrease in the risk of a person developing the disorder if exposed to a dog early in life. Across the entire age range studied, there was no significant link between dogs and bipolar disorder, or between cats and either psychiatric disorder.
In their current study, Yolken and colleagues looked at a population of 1,371 men and women between the ages of 18 and 65 that consisted of 396 people with schizophrenia, 381 with bipolar disorder and 594 controls. Information documented about each person included age, gender, race/ethnicity, place of birth, and highest level of parental education (as a measure of socio-economic status).
Researchers recruited patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder from inpatient, day hospital, and rehabilitation programs of Sheppard Pratt Health System. They recruited control group members from the Baltimore area and screened to rule out any current or past psychiatric disorders.
Researchers asked all study participants if they had a household pet cat or dog or both during their first 12 years of life. Researchers considered those who reported having a pet cat or dog in their house when they were born to be exposed to that animal since birth.
Surprisingly, Yolken says, the findings suggest that people exposed to a pet dog before their 13th birthday have a significantly less likelihood—as much as 24%—to receive a schizophrenia diagnosis later. “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,” he says. For bipolar disorder, the study results suggest there is no risk association, either positive or negative, with being around dogs as an infant or young child.