It may be time to go out and get yourself a pet pig or goat.
A recently conducted German study shows that children who have regular contact with farm animals may be less likely to develop inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) than other children.
The study was led by researcher Katja Radon, the head of the unit for occupational and environmental epidemiology & NetTeaching at Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, Germany.
The team focused on the “hygiene hypothesis,” which states that children who are exposed at a young age to certain microbes may have stronger immune systems. These microbes are less likely to be present in sanitized areas compared to a barn filled with animals.
The hygiene hypothesis may explain why researchers have found that allergies are less among people who have had regular contact with farm animals early in life.
Radon and her team studied 2,229 children from the ages of 6-18 who were born and raised in Germany. The study tracked juvenile inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), specifically ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
Out of the 2,229 children, 1,481 children didn’t have IBS, 444 were being treated for Crohn’s disease and the other 304 children were being treated for ulcerative colitis.
Parents then answered questions about exposure to farm animals, pet dogs or cats, and urban or rural residence during the first year of life.
“We have shown that children with such diseases as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease were less likely to have lived in rural environments and were less likely to have farm contact in the first year of life before the disease had developed,” Radon says.
In contrast, children who had spent regular amounts of time visiting or living on farms during their first year of life were 50 percent less likely to develop Crohn’s as they got older and 60 percent less prone to ulcerative colitis.
Being exposed to cattle appeared to cut the odds of Crohn’s by 60 percent and colitis by 70 percent.
Even cats were found to have an effect. Regular exposure in infancy to cats reduced Crohn’s risk by 20 percent and reduced colitis by 50 percent.
So, does this mean we should go out and buy a farm in the country now?
“You can’t make the leap to say that to protect our children against autoimmune disease, we need to take them to farms, because we don’t know yet what the [protective] exposure is,” said Dr. Peter Mannon, head of the Clinical Inflammatory Bowel Diseases Research Unit at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Radon agrees and says that they cannot give advice to parents yet because the study didn’t show a cause-and-effect relationship, only an association.
The findings are published in the August issue of Pediatrics.