Could kissing your dog — and giving her belly rubs — actually be good for your health?
Scientists at the University of Arizona (UA) think so. They’ve started the Human-Animal Interaction Research Initiative (HAIRI) “Dogs as Probiotics” study to see if healthy bacteria from dogs’ saliva, skin and even poop (ew) can help improve humans’ gastrointestinal health.
The researchers were partly inspired by previous studies. In 2013 the University of Colorado found that parents share more bacteria with their four-legged kids than they do with their two-legged ones (as well as their spouses). A 2002 study discovered that babies raised with dogs are less likely to develop immune-related issues like asthma and allergies.
“We are doing this study in older adults specifically to see if the changes science has shown for children can be replicated in older people, and to see if dogs can improve the physical and mental health of these adults,” the study website states.
“These organisms help us survive,” Charles Raison, M.D., the study’s principal investigator, told KTAR. “If your microbial material is not rich, you’re much more susceptible to Alzheimer’s … even cancer is beginning to be associated with the microbial species living in our guts.”
The study will be conducted in two phases. In the first phase, in partnership with the Humane Society of Southern Arizona (HSSA), the UA researchers will pair 20 older adults with foster dogs for three months, during which the participants’ saliva, skin and fecal samples will be compared. “All medical assessments on the dogs are non-invasive, meaning that they will not harm or cause the dog discomfort in any way,” the HAIRI website assures. The samples will be obtained by gently rubbing a cotton swab inside the dogs’ mouths or on their skin (or in their poop).
Once those samples are obtained, the second phase of the study will analyze how dogs improve humans’ immune systems.
“It’s always surprised me how many diseases and disorders are linked to inflammatory processes that link back to your immune system,” Dieter Steklis, Ph.D., an animal behavior specialist, told Arizona Sonora News. “If having a dog actually tames your immune system, which is what it seems to do, then elderly [people] who have a dog may have a lower chance of depressive illnesses.”
The researchers looked for volunteers between the ages of 50 and 80 who had not owned a dog or taken antibiotics in the past six months. After passing a screening process, the volunteers will be paired with dogs from the HSSA, and provided with free veterinary care, food and training. At the end of the study, the volunteers can adopt the dog they have been paired with.
“Based on the data we have to date, we think that dogs really are protectors of the gut,” Dr. Raison told KTAR.
Researchers said if the study proves this to be true, it could increase the adoption rate of homeless dogs.
HAIRI is asking for donations to help fund the study. To contribute, click here.
Photo: That’s me getting a smooch from my pooch, Ella.