Scientists at the University of Arizona believe the microbes living in a dog's gut may be good for their owners' health. They are recruiting volunteers to take part in their study to test the theory
It is well documented that owning a dog boosts a person's wellbeing.
But the health benefits of sharing your life with a furry friend may not end there.
Scientists believe the microbes lurking in a dog's gut could have a probiotic effect on the owners' body.
And to determine if their suspicions are true, the researchers at the University of Arizona, are recruiting volunteers to take part in a study to test the theory.
The research will focus specifically on the effect dogs have on the health of older people.
Kim Kelly, an anthropology doctoral student, and one of the lead researchers, said: 'We've co-evolved with dogs over the millennia, but nobody really understands what it is about this dog-human relationship that makes us feel good about being around dogs.
'Is it just that they're fuzzy and we like to pet them, or is there something else going on under the skin?
'The question really is, has the relationship between dogs and humans gotten under the skin?
'And we believe it has.'
The human digestive system is home to more than 500 different types of bacteria, both 'good' and 'bad'.
Probiotics, often referred to as 'good' or 'helpful' bacteria because they help keep the intestines healthy and assist in digesting food, are also believed to help the immune system.
Foods such as yogurt, as well as supplements, can help enhance probiotics in the body.
Dr Kelly, along with researchers at the University of San Diego, will explore whether living with a dog encourages the growth of positive micro organisms in the human gut - enough to improve physical and mental health in older adults.
'We essentially want to find out, is a dog acting like yogurt in having a probiotic effect,' she said.
Existing research shows that dogs and their owners share much of the same gut bacteria over time.
In addition, some studies have shown that dogs enhance the immune system of children, reducing the risk of illnesses including asthma and allergies.
Dr Charles Raison, principal investigator, said: 'We think dogs might work as probiotics to enhance the health of the bacteria that live in our guts.
'These bacteria, or microbiota, are increasingly recognised as playing an essential role in our mental and physical health, especially as we age.
'We know that not all bacteria are good.
'We can get very sick from the 'bad' bacteria, and modern medicine has done a wonderful job of protecting us from various diseases that are created by these bacteria.
'But unfortunately, by eliminating the bad bacteria we've started eliminating the 'good' bacteria, too.'
Participants in the study, which will be conducted with the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, will be paired with a canine companion from the humane society and live with the dog in their home for three months.
At the start of the research, scientists will evaluate the human participants' gut bacteria, diet, physical activity and immune function.
At the same time the dogs' gut bacteria and physical activity levels will also be measured.
Follow up evaluations will be carried out after one, two and three months to look for any positive changes to gut micro flora in both the dogs and human volunteers.
Researchers will also look for any changes in the mental health and emotional well-being of the dogs and humans.
Study volunteers must be aged 50 or over, in good general health, not have taken antibiotics in the last six months, and not have lived with a dog for at least six months.
Participants will be able to identify what type of dog they would like and will be able to adopt the dog at the end of the study, but that isn't a requirement for participation.
Food and veterinary care for the dog will be provided during the study period.
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