Archaeological records suggest we’ve been close with our pets for some time: About 10,000 years ago we started to co-habitate with cats drawn to the well-fed rodents scurrying around our farms. In ancient Egypt millions of pet dogs were buried in elaborate tombs adorned with expensive gifts and inscriptions. As a result, we’ve likely been swapping cuddles and microbial critters with domesticated animals for many generations. Today those pets are clearly still at home in our homes. And plenty of headlines tout that beyond snuggles and companionship our four-legged friends offer other benefits—like improved mental and physical health. But not so fast. A rash of recent research presents a more muddled picture of what pets bring into our lives—from microbe swaps that can alter our gut environment to emotional well-being. Just consider the family dog: Fresh from a romp through the woods or an inquisitive sniff of a butt or two, he will impart a nip, nuzzle or slobbery smooch—perhaps transferring legion microbes with each encounter. Current science suggests that might be a good thing—but only for some of us. First, let’s talk allergies. Numerous works tell us that having a dog appears to reduce rates of pet allergies if first exposure takes place very early in life. Many microbiome researchers believe those exposures to pets’ microbial milieu during infancy—in the form of pet dander—may specifically train the immune system to deal with pets and other allergens. (The theory goes: without those early exposures to certain bugs and infectious agents the natural development of the immune system is essentially stunted.) But as one May 2017 study of thousands of kids and adults concludes, the timing of such exposures appears to be key: When first pet exposures occur as a teen or young adult, risk of pet allergy actually appears to increase. There’s more bad news: Pets can also cause other problems. Lizards and turtles can carry salmonella. Parrots can carry the causative agent of psittacosis—which causes severe pneumonia in humans. And evidence has accrued that many of our furry friends can carry serious infectious agents including “superbug” MRSA, giardia, and other pathogens and parasites.
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