Babies who have regular contact with farm animals may be less likely to develop inflammatory bowel disease than other kids, a German study shows.
But don't rush out to get a pet pig just yet.
"At the moment, we unfortunately cannot give direct advice to the parents," researcher Katja Radon, MSc, says.
Radon works in Munich, Germany, as the head of the unit for occupational and environmental epidemiology & NetTeaching at Ludwig-Maximilians-University.
Radon's study appears in today's edition of the journal Pediatrics.
Radon's team focused on the "hygiene hypothesis," which holds that children who are exposed at a young age to certain microbes may have stronger immune systems, and that those microbes are less abundant in sanitized settings than in, say, a barn.
The hygiene hypothesis may explain why studies have found that allergies are rarer among people who had regular contact with farm animals early in life, note Radon and colleagues.
The new study tracks juvenile inflammatory bowel disease — specifically, ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease — in 2,229 children aged 6-18 who were born and raised in Germany.
The group included 444 children who saw specialists for Crohn's disease, 304 kids who saw specialists for ulcerative colitis, and 1,481 children without inflammatory bowel disease.
The children's parents answered questions about the children's exposure to farm animals (cattle, pigs, sheep, or goats), pet dogs or cats, and urban or rural residence during the first year of life.
"We have shown that children with such diseases [as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease were less likely to have lived in rural environments and were less likely to have farm contact in the first year of life before the disease had developed," Radon says.
Those findings held when the researchers considered various factors, including whether or not the parents had inflammatory bowel disease. But findings may not reflect children with mild inflammatory bowel disease who didn't seek specialized treatment.
And the study doesn't prove that farm animals protected kids from developing juvenile inflammatory bowel disease.
"A causal relationship should never be assumed based on one single epidemiological study," says Radon. An epidemiological study is an observational study involving large groups of people.
"Furthermore," Radon says, "we should not forget that an improved level of hygiene has relevantly contributed to today's health in industrialized countries. Therefore, we should wait until the relevant components of the exposure have been found and safe therapy has been developed from these findings."
In other words, Radon's team won't be prescribing a visit to the barnyard until they figure out exactly how farm animals may protect kids from juvenile inflammatory bowel diseases.
This article was reviewed by Dr. Louise Chang