It is a well-known fact that the faithful companionship of a dog can help with an individual’s emotional well-being. Now a new study out of Johns Hopkins University suggests that exposure to man’s best friend at a young age may decrease a person’s chance of developing schizophrenia.
The study looked at patients at Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore. These adult patients consisted of 396 people with schizophrenia and 381 with bipolar disorder. The individuals were compared to 594 healthy controls. Participants in the study reported whether they had a dog or a cat when they were growing up.
More than half of the study subjects reported having dogs before their 13th birthdays. About a third reported having cats. Researchers, accounting for other factors, found that exposure to a dog at any time in childhood led to a 24% decrease in the incidences of schizophrenia. Subjects exposed to dogs at birth were 55% less likely to have schizophrenia than those individuals who had no exposure at all. There was no significant effect with exposure to cats, and neither animal affected the development of bipolar disorder.
Researchers adjusted their study results to account for other known risk factors. However, there are limitations to the study due to the reliance on participants self-reporting their childhood exposure to dogs. There should be more research to determine whether there is a direct correlation between dogs and schizophrenia.
Reasons for the Results
While the study did not pinpoint the reasons why there may be a correlation between exposure to dogs and the development of schizophrenia, there are some possible theories. Previous studies have shown early life exposure to dogs can alter the immune system. It could be that effects on allergy responses, contact with animal bacteria, changes in a home's microbiome, and pet-induced stress reduction could alter an individual's brain chemistry. This change in the immune system may alter the risk of developing psychiatric disorders to which a person is otherwise predisposed.
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