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Dirt Helps But . . .


And when something is amiss, the nature of healing can be ineffable.

No matter how advanced our scientific knowledge and our technology become, I think there will always be factors affecting health that will be impossible to identify and measure. A recent article reminded me of this idea.

Under the title, “Pet’s Good for Baby’s Health?” journalist Amina Khan focused on research published in the journal Pediatrics. However, she touched on a variety of findings suggesting that reasonable exposure to bacteria, yeast, microbes, and good old dirt serves to strengthen the immune system of children. The study reported in Pediatrics involved 397 Finnish children during the first year of life, some with dogs, some with cats, and some with no pets at all.

The overall conclusion of the research was that health was significantly enhanced during that first year by the presence of pets, and dogs were more beneficial. Babies with dogs were 31 percent more likely to be healthy than babies with no pets; cats gave only a 6 percent advantage. Further, children with pet dogs were 44 percent less likely to have ear infections during the first year and 29 percent less likely to have used antibiotics.

There was no reference in the research to the ways dogs and cats differ in spirit, i.e.“Dogs come when they’re called; cats take a message and get back to you.” However, having a certain orientation of my own, I wasn’t surprised that the dog presence was more healthful.

Now on with the scientific detail. One thing that seemed to throw the researchers was that the children benefiting most from pets were not around them all day. Here the percentages were reversed—or you could say an absent cat was more beneficial than an absent dog.

For example, toddlers whose cats were in the house for less than six hours a day were healthy 78.2 percent of the time. That figure dropped to 75.7 percent when the dogs were around for less than six hours a day. (I figure the baby really missed the dog.) For the sake of comparison, children without pets of any kind were healthy only 64.8 percent of the time.

The troubled researchers were eventually satisfied by a possible explanation for the better health of babies with indoor/outdoor pets. They deduced that pets which spent time outdoors brought in more dirt, and that would cause infant immune systems to mature faster.

Too bad I couldn’t provide the scientists with my own input. What I think is that the well-being of the absent pets was greatly enhanced by being able to spend time in their natural element. When they came in for some human companionship after play and adventure, they brought happy energy in with them, and the babies benefited. The whole household probably benefited. Somebody should study that.

The fact that well-being is created by sources too subjective to identify and quantify will always be frustrating to scientists and practitioners of conventional medicine. And when something is amiss, the nature of healing can be ineffable. Anyone whose troubled stomach has been treated by a purring cat or who has had tears licked away by a devoted dog knows this.

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