Children could have a lower risk of food allergies when exposed to pet animals during early infancy.

A new study published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One examined the associations between fetal or infancy pet exposure and food allergies and found that the former lowers the incidence of the latter.

"The hygiene hypothesis suggests that pet exposure is effective in preventing allergic disease, and some studies have reported the beneficial effects of dog exposure during fetal development or early infancy on food allergy," the research team wrote.

Since there is already evidence of the positive effects of exposure to pet dogs during infancy, the team sought to explore if other pet animals, such as cats, also lower the risk of food allergies in kids.

The team analyzed data from more than 65,000 children in Japan and discovered that those exposed to cats or indoor dogs had a 13% to 16% lower chance of developing food allergies than babies born in pet-free homes.

"Exposure to dogs or cats during fetal development or early infancy was estimated to reduce the incidence risk of food allergies until the age of 3 years. Dog exposure was estimated to reduce the incidence risk of egg, milk, and nut allergies, and cat exposure was estimated to reduce the incidence risk of egg, wheat, and soybean allergies," the team added.

The study was not limited to pet cats and dogs only. The researchers also evaluated data from respondents who kept hamsters, turtles and birds as indoor or outdoor pets. However, they did not record positive associations with food allergies. Hamster exposure even increased the incidence risk of nut allergy.

The mechanism behind this type of immunity is still unclear. However, experts said the presence of pets could strengthen the gut microbiome of kids directly or indirectly through constant exposure.

Dr. Jonathan Bernstein, the president of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, explained that dirt and other compounds secreted by pet animals could be a good thing for young children.

"It is critical to have these exposures early on as the immune system is developing, as the gut is developing because it does seem to be an important route for sensitization," Bernstein, who was not involved in the study, told CNN.

According to the research team, continued exposure to pet dogs and cats could help reduce the incidence risk of food allergies in children. They also said their findings could help future studies about the same associations.

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