Dogs and cats may not just provide your family with love and constant companionship -- they could also have a powerful effect on the health of children early in life, according to a small new study.
New research in the journal Pediatrics shows that children who live in a home with a pet during their first year of life are also more likely to be healthier, compared with kids who don't live in a pet-owning household.
"It's more support in a growing body of evidence that exposure to pets early in life can stimulate the immune system to do a better job of fighting off infection," Dr. Danielle Fisher, of St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., told the Los Angeles Times.
Specifically, kids who had a dog during their first year of life had 31 percent fewer respiratory tract infections than kids who didn't live with a dog, researchers found.
Kids from dog-owning homes also had fewer ear infections -- 44 percent fewer than kids from non dog-owning homes -- and needed fewer antibiotics, researchers found.
Cats also seemed to have a beneficial effect on kids' health, but not as strong as dogs, the researchers said.
"Our findings support the theory that during the first year of life, animal contacts are important, possibly leading to better resistance to infectious respiratory illnesses during childhood," the European researchers wrote.
The study included 397 kids in Finland, who were followed by researchers from the time they were born until they reached age 1. The families reported how much contact they had with a dog or a cat on a weekly basis.
ABC News also reported on the relationship between the amount of time the pet spent indoors, and the beneficial effect on the kids:
Children who live in houses where dogs are inside less than six hours a day are at lowest risk for respiratory problems. The authors believe it could be because dogs that are inside track less dirt. More exposure to dirt leads to more exposure to different types of bacteria, which can help strengthen the immune system.
This is only the latest finding showing how pets can make us healthier. For more health benefits of having an animal, click through the slideshow.