Eat Your Yogurt, Kiss Your Dog: Could Canines Be as Good for You as Probiotics?

New study seeks to find out whether being a pet owner is good for the gut.

(Photo: Rex Lisman/Getty Images)

Apr 28, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

There’s the cost of those high-end probiotic supplements on one hand; then there’s the cost of dog food on the other. But in the strange cost-benefit analysis comparing keeping a healthy gut with caring for a pet, there's one thing canines definitely have going for them: You’ll never get wet, slobbery kisses from those supplements.

In one of the more surprising directions in the burgeoning scientific quest to understand the importance of all the trillions of microscopic bacteria and other tiny organisms that make our bodies tick, researchers at the University of Arizona are embarking on a novel study to see whether man’s best friend might just be as potent of a probiotic force as, say, your morning cup of yogurt or a swig of kefir.

“We’ve co-evolved with dogs over the millennia, but nobody really understands what it is about this dog-human relationship that makes us feel good about being around dogs,” Kim Kelly, an anthropology doctoral student and one of the lead researchers on the study, said in a statement. “Is it just that they’re fuzzy and we like to pet them, or is there something else going on under the skin? The question really is: Has the relationship between dogs and humans gotten under the skin. And we believe it has.”

Kelly is talking about more than just the uncontrollable urge to slip into baby talk the minute we see Fido’s tail wagging. A 2013 study out of the University of Colorado found that people who owned dogs shared a significant amount of skin microbes—so much so that in households with dogs, parents appeared to share more microbes with the family pet than they did with their kids. Likewise, couples who owned a dog shared more of the same skin bacteria than couples who didn’t.

In some ways, that hardly seems surprising: What loving dog owner hasn’t been momentarily arrested mid-smooch by the unsettling question of where else that sandpapery tongue licking your face has been today?

But whereas just a few years ago that question would trigger images of marauding germs, those cartoonish green goblins that have long been featured in ads for bathroom cleaners and antibacterial soap, today science is leading us toward an understanding that we might do well to show a bit more respect to the legions of microscopic organisms that call our world—and our bodies—home. Not only are many of them harmless, but many appear vital to our overall good health and well-being. Hence the rising popularity of yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and probiotic-filled products.

Dogs, the researchers believe, could be a strange cousin of these fermented foods.

“This ‘good’ bacteria can be thought of like a ‘probiotic,’ ” the Arizona researchers write on their website. “Through research, we’ve learned that people who own dogs are much more likely to share the same kinds of these ‘good’ bacteria with their dogs. We have also learned that children who are raised with dogs are less likely than others to develop a range of immune-related disorders, including asthma and allergies, suggesting that maybe dogs are enhancing the ‘good’ bacteria in our bodies, and possibly improving our health.”

To test their hypothesis, the University of Arizona team is looking for adults 50 or older who have not taken antibiotics or lived with a dog for the past six months. Participants will be paired with a dog rescued from a shelter, and both will have their gut bacteria (non-invasively) analyzed at the outset. Follow-up evaluations will occur at monthly intervals for three months to see what kind of impact, if any, cohabitation has on the microbiome. At the end of the study, the humans will have the option to adopt their canine companion—though the researchers stress “that isn’t a requirement for participation.”

Those soulful brown eyes and panting smile, however, would beg to differ.

For all those ardent dog lovers out there who don’t live in Arizona or otherwise meet the study criteria, you can help out as well. Owing to declines in government funding for biomedical research, the research team has launched an online campaign to crowdfund its work. A donation today might just be a small price to pay in the hope that someday soon we’ll discover that yes, kissing your dog might be healthy for you.