A dog can be more than a man’s best friend. Sometimes, a cat, too.

A recent study shows that having pets in a household can actually help babies get a jump-start on good health.

The study published in The Journal of 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.

Researchers in the study followed nearly 400 babies to see if having a dog or cat would provide them any health benefits.

They found kids who had a dog around for their first year of life were not only healthier overall, but had fewer respiratory tract symptoms or infections than kids with no dog.

“Studies have shown that babies introduced to households with dogs experience less allergies overall, not just pet allergies,” said Dr. Wesley Burks, chair of the University of North Carolina Department of Pediatrics.

The effect of helping the baby’s health was stronger for dogs than for cats.

“There’s always been varying opinions on how babies health differs when it comes to cats and dogs, but many studies that have been done show more reaction to those with dogs,” Burks said.

Babies who lived with dogs were 31 percent more likely to be in good health than families who don’t. Babies with cats had only a 6 percent advantage over those without felines around the home.

The study said children with pet dogs were 44 percent less likely to develop ear infections and 29 percent less likely to have used antibiotics during their first year.

“In many ways, the study is saying, if you’re exposed to a natural environment, your immune system recognizes that you don’t fight the normal allergens,” Burks said.

Though the pets can help build up immunization and allergy tolerance, they can still pose a risk.

Burks said it’s important to talk to your family doctor and pinpoint the good and bad reasons about having pets in your household.

“Pros of living with pets are not just for health reasons, but to grow up with companionship and help to learn about bonds,” he said.

With advantages can come disadvantages according to Burks.

Introducing a pet after bringing the baby home can be a different phenomenon.

“The child could start seeing symptoms right away when the pet is newly introduced to the home after the baby’s arrival,” Burks said. “But if you’re worried about allergies or illness, there are skin and blood tests the baby can have to help guide what needs to be done.”

Not only are the health risks, but the furry four legged friends can hold potential threats.

“There are always accidental safety issues not tied to health reasons,” Burks said. “There’s possibility of roughness, biting and even accidental suffocation.”

The new findings could help assuage parents-to-be who worry about the health consequences of exposing their infant to a pet.

“With studies such as these, it shows it’s actually very helpful to have a cat or dog around because we tend to see less allergies,” Burks said. “And now parents and children may see less chance of upper respiratory infection in the first year of life.”

In view of the research findings – you shouldn’t get a pet expressly to protect your child from colds or allergies, but you also don’t need to worry about getting rid of Fido out of fear that he may do harm by nuzzling up to your newborn.

Content by Kimberly Schupp-Miller. Copyright 2012 Raycom News Network.