They say that a dog is man’s best friend – and for good reason. Anyone with a dog knows how cute, cuddly and loveable these furry, four-legged creatures can be.
Dogs are more than just our best friends, however. Sure, these loyal critters stand next to us to keep us company, help us feel protected and make sure we always feel loved. But, did you know that their affectionate kisses may be actually improving our health one lick at a time?
There is mounting evidence to suggest that your dog may actually be affecting your health in much greater ways than we ever thought possible. As researchers continue to explore this notion, they are finding that significant health benefits begin with a fine blend of human and canine microbes.
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What is a Microbiome?
A microbe is a single-celled organism and the oldest life form on the planet. Microbes can’t be seen with the naked eye. In fact, they are so infinitesimal that a million of them can fit in the eye of a single needle!
Microbes are everywhere in our environment. They are in the water we drink and in the soil we use to harvest our crops. Microbes are even found both inside and outside of our bodies. In fact, there are so many of them in our adult bodies that they tend to outnumber our cells in an estimated 10:1 ratio! Researchers refer to these microbes and their genes, collectively, as a microbiome.
From birth, we are exposed to these tiny microbes that make up our human microbiome. Depending on the way in which we are born, we receive a number of different microbes from our mother during the childbirth process. As a small child, we pick up additional microbes from family members, friends and other relatives who come in close contact with us. Over time, these little cells colonise every square inch of skin that has ever been exposed to the outside environment.
As we continue to grow, these microbes continue to evolve. They fight each other for both space and resources and, ultimately, the fittest survive. When we get sick, eat new foods or are treated with new antibiotics, these microbes have the tendency to shift. The effect of these shifts can last a few weeks, a few months or even a few years depending on the circumstance. Significant life events, such as puberty or pregnancy, can also cause major, long-lasting shifts in our microbiome population.
Similar to our fingerprints, no two people have the same microbiome population. There are many factors that play into the composition of our microbiome, including our gender, diet, age, occupation, hygiene level, and the climate that we live in, along with many other lifestyle factors – all of which vary dramatically from person to person (1).
How Microbiomes Effect Our Health
While the word ‘microbe’ tends to sound a bit scary, researchers have proven that they actually do more good than bad. For years, doctors treated microbes as something that would cause us to get sick; something that had to be eliminated in order to maintain our health. While there are certainly bad microbes that do cause us to get sick, they are far outnumbered by good microbes that work to keep our bodies in a healthy balance. In fact, our microbiomes provide more genes that contribute to our everyday survival than the human genome (8 million versus 22,000) (2).
As more research is being done, doctors are starting to understand how important this balance is. Even the slightest imbalance in our microbiome can wreak havoc on our health and cause disease. Thus, restoring that balance once it is destroyed is critical in disease prevention and health promotion.
According to Dr. Jonathan Eisen, a microbiologist, our microbiomes play an important role in keeping us healthy:
- Since there are more than 10 times as many microbial cells as there are human cells in our bodies, microbes play an integral role in protecting us from disease-causing pathogens. Because there are so many of them, they prevent pathogens from utilising empty space on the body to cause illness and disease.
- A 2010 study at Loyola University demonstrated how a rod-shaped bacterium that is commonly found in the digestive tract called ‘Bacillus’ can actually stimulate the immune system. These cells have the ability to bind to cells within the immune system and stimulate them to reproduce. With further research, it is thought that these cells could actually be used to strengthen weakened immune systems and help the body fight off a wide-range of cancerous tumors.
- Microbes protect us from auto-immune diseases. There is evidence to suggest that potential disturbances to our microbiome can trigger the onset of auto-immune disorders. A 2009 study that was conducted at Cornell University revealed that mice were able to produce insulin after being injected with a benign strain of E. Coli. This suggests that with further research, a microbial yogurt may actually be able to replace insulin injections in those who suffer from diabetes.
- Microbes have a probiotic effect. They help us to maintain a healthy weight by assisting us with the digestion of certain foods in our gut, as well as shape different metabolic rates.
- Microbes help to detoxify our bodies by taking in dangerous toxins and environmental pollutants that we are exposed to. They help to process these toxins and spare us from, most of the time, the detrimental effects. (3)
How Dogs Can Improve Your Health
So, what does all of this have to do with your dog? Whilst evidence suggests that dog owners tend to be less stressed than their non-dog owning counterparts, a dog’s bacteria may actually be aiding in your overall physical health and wellbeing, too.
Since lifestyle and living situations both influence your microbiome, scientists have determined that those who share the same living space feature similar microbiome populations. This includes people and, yes, you guessed it – dogs! In fact, many scientists are able to match dogs to their respective owners based solely on their microbiome. This is due to the fact that microbiome populations are often shared through a dog’s mouth, paws and on their fur. Interestingly enough, a study was done in Cambridge, Massachusetts that revealed more than 353 different types of bacteria from the mouths of just 50 dogs – 80 percent of which hadn’t been previously identified by researchers. So, every time you receive a big, wet puppy kiss, you are sharing different microbes with your dog and changing up the composition of your microbiome! (4)
Whilst there are many questions that still remain, scientists do believe that children who live with a dog in infancy have a lower risk of developing asthma and allergies over time. These days, we are so preoccupied with trying to kill off microbes to prevent both illness and disease, that we are seeing a rise in such things as asthma and allergies, especially in the adolescent population. We are so concerned with being ‘clean,’ that we are actually doing ourselves a great disservice when it comes to our immune system.
Many scientists agree with the fact that children need to be exposed to harmless microbes in order to train their immune systems to adequately identify and react to such organisms. Children who grow up with dogs are exposed to a number of different microbes that help to build and strengthen their immune systems, so that they are less susceptible to developing allergies and asthma related complications over time.
Due to the fact that dogs wander both indoors and outdoors and pick up different microbes along the way, they tend to have a probiotic effect on the gut microbes of their human counter-parts. The good bacteria that are being found in the dust microbes of dog owner’s homes can, hopefully, one day be used to reshape the existing gut bacteria in humans to reduce the likelihood of both asthma and allergies (5).
While this is certainly quite interesting, there is another study being done in the United States to determine the health benefits of owning a dog after the age of 50. Scientists have given a group of older adults rescued dogs. The adults in the study have either never owned a dog, or haven’t owned one in quite a few years. Currently, they are tracking the physical and mental health of these adults to determine if the dog has any effect on their overall health and wellbeing. They hypothesise that the good bacteria from the dog will be transferred to their human owner and demonstrate a number of health-boosting effects.
The Link Between Your Dog and Your Health
While there is much research that still needs to be done regarding the interaction of both human and canine microbiomes, scientists do suspect that dogs have a much greater influence on our overall health and wellbeing than we previously thought.
Sure, dogs are great companions. They keep us company, they protect us and they are the most loyal, loving partners we could ever ask for. But, their microbiome population may actually be helping us build stronger immune systems, thus protecting us from developing chronic and debilitating illness and disease over time. In addition, our dogs may actually employ a probiotic effect that helps us to maintain our gut health and keep our bodies in a healthy balance, as well.
So, the next time your dog gives you a big, wet, slimy kiss, just think about all the unique ways his or her bacteria is helping your body not only survive, but thrive, as well!