From the September 2019 issue

Being Around Livestock Increases Kids’ Immunity

Rural Amish kids who have been exposed to barnyard critters have stronger immune systems than children who aren't. Can suburban kids can benefit, too?

Illustration by Jay Holladay

Like most little ones, my 2-year-old son is fascinated by animals – from cats to cows. While he spends his days in close proximity to his two cat siblings, he doesn’t really get the chance to interact with cows and other farm animals as a suburban boy.

But it turns out that a little exposure to livestock could benefit his immune system. So says a study from The Ohio State University, which discovered that microbes found in the poop of rural Amish babies regularly exposed to livestock were more diverse than urban babies who weren’t. In plain terms, the Amish babies have stronger, healthier guts and, hence, stronger immune systems.

These findings match previous research on gut microbes of rural infants worldwide and further support the “hygiene hypothesis,” which says early exposure to germs builds a child’s immune system.

“I think exposure in general is probably always a good thing for everyone, obviously if their health allows it,” says Dr. Devang Doshi, chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak.

That said, it doesn’t mean your family has to move to a farm. Here in metro Detroit, kids can meet livestock at petting farms and various other places, including MSU Tollgate Farm and Education Center in Novi.

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“We are trying to show you what it would be like to raise livestock on a farm,” says Tollgate director Michael Mathis. Its programs and camps allow kids to milk goats and try other animal chores.

While there are benefits, families should still be careful. How can you help strengthen your child’s immunities safely?

Rural advantage

Asthma and allergies impact 6 million children in the United States, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. In order to develop an immune tolerance to allergies, children need exposure to different germs, which leads to gut microbiome diversity.

To see how gut bacteria helps immunity, researchers at The Ohio State University inserted microbes into hundreds of newborn pigs who were kept in a germ-free lab. From this research, they discovered that the diverse gut bacteria helped strengthen the immune system.

Kids in rural Amish communities automatically have exposure to different germs than kids growing up in urban areas – and that geographical difference has an impact.

“Looking at a small group or community that really does live in a rural setting and they really don’t have a lot of the amenities that other groups of individuals in different places have … they may not have those allergic tendencies, and their children may not have those allergic tendencies,” Doshi says.

While the findings don’t suggest abandoning the burbs, they do note that time in a natural environment can help a child’s immune system.

“Being outside and being exposed to nature is really good for us,” Mathis says.

Exposure considerations

Children who have a history of asthma should limit their exposure to livestock, Doshi says. However, if you’re planning to visit a local farm, Doshi suggests pre-medicating with antihistamines or a nose spray.

Once there, keep an eye out for a runny nose, swelling of the eyelids and breathing issues. If your child appears to have developed a cold in 30 minutes, it’s time to head out, he adds.

When visiting a farm, be sure to ask about their biosecurity protocols, Mathis says. “Do they have hand-washing stations? Do they have hand sanitizer? Do they have any kind of expectations for how to prevent disease spread and cleanliness for the animals and for people? You want to make sure you’re going to a quality facility.”

At the farm, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer, Mathis adds. Afterwards, wash your shoes, too, to ensure you don’t transfer germs from the farm to your home or another facility. And, Doshi says, don’t touch your face after petting an animal.

“Get exposed to things but still be clean,” Mathis says. “That’s probably the biggest focus for me when working around the animals.”

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