A study by the journal Pediatrics finds that children who lived with dogs or cats during their first year of life got sick less frequently than kids from pet-free zones. The study suggests that sharing a home with a pet may be an early form of cross-training for the body’s defense systems. Dirt and microbes brought indoors by pets could bolster the communities of helpful bacteria, yeast and other microscopic creatures that live in a developing child’s body.

Researchers found that cats and dogs were linked to a reduced incidence of various types of illness. Babies who lived with dogs were 31% more likely to be in good health than their counterparts who didn’t, and babies with cats had a 6% advantage over those without feline family members.

In cat-owning households, babies whose cats were indoors more than 16 hours a day were healthy 70.8% of the time. But in homes where the cat was inside for less than six hours a day, babies were healthy 78.2% of the time. For the sake of comparison, young children who lived in cat-free zones were healthy 66.1% of the time.

Dr. Danelle Fisher, vice chair of pediatrics at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, said “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.”

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