Having a dog as a child might reduce the risk for schizophrenia in adulthood by as much as 24 percent, but not for the reasons you might think. Rather than keeping the psychiatric disorder at bay via steady companionship and the emotional well-being a pet confers, a dog may ward off schizophrenia by influencing the development of the immune system in early life. It is believed that various environmental factors can help trigger schizophrenia in someone whose immune system cannot mount a strong enough defense but that exposure to such things as allergens and microorganisms carried by dogs might help guard against the disease’s development.
Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and Baltimore’s Sheppard Pratt Health System made the finding when they looked at the pet-owning records of 1,371 adults, almost 400 of whom had schizophrenia. The protective effect was strongest in those who had a dog by the age of 3, but even having a dog as late as age 12 was associated with a lower risk of developing the disease.
The research is preliminary and shows only an association rather than cause and effect. It’s much too early to get a dog for a young child to ward off a psychiatric disorder. But the intriguing results might pave the way for prevention strategies down the line.