Cats and cows to the rescue – how farm animals can protect children from asthma?

If you grew up in a village, you probably love animals. It is just how it is – people who grow up surrounded by nature tend to enjoy company of pets. There are many health benefits to it too, but one of them sounds kind of weird. Did you know that cats and cows protect children from allergies and asthma? How do they do that?

Petting cows, drinking their milk, spending time with a cat on your lap – all of that has a potential of protecting children from asthma and allergies. Image credit: Dominicus Johannes Bergsma via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 4.0)

Intuitively, the opposite should be true. People are allergic to animals and so they should not grow up asthma-free if they are surrounded by hairy friends. But a new research from the University of Zurich revealed that animals can help children avoiding asthma and allergies. How? The secret is a sialic acid found in farm animals, because it is effective against inflammation of lung tissue. Should you already start looking at classified ads looking for a cow?

About 30 % of children have allergies. This is a huge number and it is still growing. It is a worldwide problem that has to be mitigated with extreme measures. This statistic does not include children living in farms. They are surrounded by microbes and that has a big impact on how their immune system develops. However, this is some old news, it has been known for a long time that living in environments rich with microbes is going to make your immune system more robust. But now scientists are saying that it is not just microbes, it is also pets.

Petting animals and consuming food from them regulates the inflammatory reactions of the immune system. It is so because in this way children get plenty of sialic acid, which is wide spread in vertebrates. This substance, known as N-Glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc), is not produced by human organism – we get it from food or contact with animals. That is why children who grow up in farms have plenty of this acid in their bodies. Immune system learns to combat Neu5Gc and so more antibodies are produced. Children with more antibodies normally do not develop asthma. In other words, close contact with Neu5Gc is beneficial because it exercises our immune system.

Scientists figured this out by using mouse models. They wanted to see how various cells of the immune system are affected by Neu5Gc. Interestingly, they found that it does not reduce immunoglobulin E, the antibody that frequently occurs during allergic reactions, but it initiates an anti-inflammatory reaction of the immune system. This happens through so called “T-Cells”. Remo Frei, leader of the study, said: “These T-cells dampen incorrect responses of the immune system and have a strong anti-inflammatory effect. Our research results open up opportunities for transferring the protective effect of farms to all children. In this way, we can possibly lay an important foundation stone for effective allergy prevention”.

We can say that this research proves what we already knew– growing up in a farm is simply better, because of all the fun you can have with animals and health benefits associated with it.


Source: University of Zurich

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