While you’re busy wiping every surface in your home with an anti-bacterial cleaning solution, your dog has a different approach to dealing with dirt. They’re probably out in your yard right now rolling in the grass (as well as more questionable outdoor materials), sniffing tree trunks, and putting their paws into everything from your freshly-laid mulch to last year’s abandoned leaf pile. Whatever they’re doing, they’re exposing themselves to bacteria. It sounds gross, but don’t reach for your rubber gloves and doggy shampoo quite yet. Science shows dogs and their dirty habits play a vital role in human gut health.

Misunderstood Microbes

Gut HealthIn the 1980s, researchers came up with a theory called the “hygiene hypothesis.” It’s the belief that there’s a direct relationship between the increase of people suffering from allergies and mankind’s somewhat new obsession for keeping things clean. Ridding the world of germs for the sake of human health sounds like a sensible idea, but studies show without exposure to bacteria (especially early in life), human bodies have to work harder to stay healthy.

Contrary to popular belief, not all bacteria are bad. Everywhere you look, there are bacteria that make up entire invisible environments called microbiomes. These microbiomes are found on door handles and couch cushions, and the one you should care about most is in your gut. It’s best to think of your gut’s microbiome like a living ecosystem. Everything has a job to do, and the best ecosystems are the ones with plenty of variety. In the average healthy gut, there are hundreds of different species of bacteria all doing their part to keep the body in balance. Gut health is a big part of digestion, and your microbiome also affects your immune system, heart health, mental health, and much more. If you’re missing out on a specific type of microbe, your health might pay the price. Healthline says,

“Generally speaking, a diverse microbiota is considered to be a healthy one. This is because of the more species of bacteria you have, the greater number of health benefits they may be able to contribute to.”

That leads us back to your daily cleaning ritual. It might feel good knowing your trusty anti-bacterial spray is killing off all the invisible bacteria in your home, but by doing so, you’re also depriving your body of potentially helpful microorganisms.

What Your Dog Has to Do With Gut Health

You already know people can pass bacteria to other people, and some diseases can be spread from dogs to humans. The same concept applies to the good bacteria your dog carries around on their snout, paws, and tongue. Every time your dog plants a big wet smooch on your face tracks paw prints on your freshly cleaned floors, and every time you rub their soft fur, you’re exposed to their bacteria. Those potentially helpful microbes leave your dog’s body and enter your bloodstream to join your gut’s never-ending fight for good health.

Gut Health for All Life Stages

A study done in 2013 found babies that live with dogs have more diverse microbiomes in their guts than babies that aren’t exposed to those dog-related bacteria. A healthy gut means a well-developed immune system, and that goes on to affect whether the child will develop allergies, asthma, and several other health issues in their future. A similar study found babies living with pets have higher levels of two specific kinds of bacteria that are linked with low incidences of allergies and obesity.

We’re still waiting for science to answer the question of whether dogs help adult gut health in the same way they help babies, but preliminary findings say the benefits drop off as a person ages. Early exposure to dogs is best, but new studies will delve deeper into exactly what good bacteria from dogs can do for the human body. Director of the Microbiome Center at the University of Chicago, Dr. Jack Gilbert, theorizes that because gut health is related to everything from immune response to cognitive function, exposure to dog bacteria may affect mood and other mental functions in adults and elderly citizens. We don’t have all the answers yet, but it’s clear man’s best friend has positive effects on man’s gut health.

It will always be true that some bacteria carried by animals is harmful to human health, but as New York Times reporter Richard Schiffman says,

“The potential upsides of pet ownership appear to outweigh the risks—and continue to be elucidated.”

How to Keep You and Your Dog Healthy

You love your dog for their loyal companionship, but there’s nothing wrong with making the most of all the health benefits that come with owning a pet. If you want to maximize your gut health while also keeping your dog in their best shape, here’s what you do.

  1. Play with your dog outside. Not only will you both benefit from the fresh air and exercise, but you’ll also have a better chance of catching some of those much-needed microbes during your playful interactions.
  2. Relax your cleaning schedule. You don’t need to completely let go of your cleaning routine, but there is such a thing as over-cleaning. Your cleaning products can’t tell the difference between the bad stuff and the good stuff, and you need that good stuff for good gut health.
  3. Skip the dog’s bath this week. Bathing your dog too often will dry out their skin, strip their fur of essential oils, and destroy the healthy microbiome that’s been cultivating on their fur. It’s recommended to bathe dogs around once a month and use a gentle shampoo that won’t completely destroy their microbiome.
  4. Care for your dog’s gut health. Your dog deserves a healthy gut as much as you do and feeding them the right foods will help make sure they get everything they need. Try a healthy treat full of antioxidants to promote overall well-being. When your dog is healthy, they’ll be in a better position to help you stay healthy, too.
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