DOGS are no longer just man's best friend -- they may also protect infants against breathing problems and infections, according to a European study.
Researchers, whose report appeared in the journal Pediatrics, found that Finnish babies who lived with a dog -- or, to a lesser extent, a cat -- spent fewer weeks with ear infections, coughs or runny noses. They were also less likely to need antibiotics.
"These results suggest that dog contacts may have a protective effect on respiratory tract infections during the first year of life," wrote Eija Bergroth, at Kuopio University Hospital in Finland.
"Our findings support the theory that during the first year of life, animal contacts are important, possibly leading to better resistance to infectious respiratory illnesses during childhood."
The researchers studied 397 infants who were born between September 2002 and May 2005. Parents filled out weekly diaries starting when the child was nine weeks old, recording the babies' health and contact with cats and dogs.
The researchers determined that 35pc of the children spent the majority of their first year with a pet dog and 24pc in a home with a cat.
Before their first birthday, 285 of the babies had at least one fever, 157 had an ear infection, 335 had a cough, 284 got stuffy or runny noses and 189 needed to take antibiotics at some point.