Study shows owning a dog may cut risk of children getting eczema

Owning a dog might help your future children — by slashing their risk of eczema, research suggests.

US experts tracked eczema rates in almost 800 children under the age of two and looked at whether their parents kept a dog indoors during pregnancy or in the first year they were born.

Being exposed to a dog appeared to have a 'significant protective effect' against developing eczema in children, they claimed.

The team from Henry Ford Health in Detroit, Michigan, said dogs' diverse bacteria could help children's immune development, staving off the condition.

Eczema, which affects up to one in five children and one in 10 adults, is an inflammatory condition that causes the skin to become itchy, dry and cracked.

Experts do not know its exact cause is but believe it may be genetic and brought on by the skin barrier not working properly, allowing allergens to enter.

Exposure to bacteria in the first months after being born can help a child develop a healthy immune system, potentially reducing inflammatory conditions like eczema, researchers said. 

Research has shown certain bacteria that can exacerbate eczema later in life can actually prevent the condition occurring if a child is exposed to it earlier. 

There is no cure but symptoms can disappear as children age. Doctors recommend using moisturisers for dry skin and can prescribe topical corticosteroids to reduce swelling and itching during flare-ups.

Previous studies have shown growing up with a dog can also help protect children from developing asthma, another inflammatory condition that is more common in those with eczema. 

The latest research, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, recruited pregnant women who were due between September 2003 and December 2007.

Doctors checked their children for eczema when they were aged two and 10 years old to asses their history of the condition over time.

They were split into four groups: those who never had it, had it at age two but were resolved by 10, had it persistently across both ages, and developed it by age 10.

Mothers were interviewed before giving birth and at the end of the study to determine if their children were exposed to dogs while in the womb and in their first year.

Just over a quarter (26 per cent) of pregnant women kept a dog indoors. Rates of eczema were 22 per cent at age two and 21 per cent at age 10. 

Results showed children whose mothers had a dog around while they were pregnant and in their first first year had a significantly lower risk of developing the condition by the age of two.

But the effect was not seen at age 10 or for those with persistent eczema.

Dr Amy Eapen, an allergy expert who led the study, said the results suggest the first year of life is 'potentially the critical window' to preventing eczema.

Writing in the journal, the researchers said: 'Our data suggest that prenatal and early-life dog exposure has a significant protective effect on eczema development at or before age two years. 

'Because keeping pets influences infant gut microbial composition, the lower rate of eczema in dog-exposed children may be linked to altered early-life immune development triggered by microbial exposures. 

'Clinically, our findings suggest that prenatal dog exposure could protect against early eczema.'

They admitted they could not prove being exposed to a dog was behind the lower rates because the study was purely observational.