Dogs and cats may not just provide your family with love and constant companionship -- they could also have a powerful effect on the health of children early in life, according to a small new study.

New research in the journal Pediatrics shows that children who live in a home with a pet during their first year of life are also more likely to be healthier, compared with kids who don't live in a pet-owning household.

"It's more support in a growing body of evidence that exposure to pets early in life can stimulate the immune system to do a better job of fighting off infection," Dr. Danielle Fisher, of St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., told the Los Angeles Times.

Specifically, kids who had a dog during their first year of life had 31 percent fewer respiratory tract infections than kids who didn't live with a dog, researchers found.

Kids from dog-owning homes also had fewer ear infections -- 44 percent fewer than kids from non dog-owning homes -- and needed fewer antibiotics, researchers found.

Cats also seemed to have a beneficial effect on kids' health, but not as strong as dogs, the researchers said.

"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 European researchers wrote.

The study included 397 kids in Finland, who were followed by researchers from the time they were born until they reached age 1. The families reported how much contact they had with a dog or a cat on a weekly basis.

ABC News also reported on the relationship between the amount of time the pet spent indoors, and the beneficial effect on the kids:

Children who live in houses where dogs are inside less than six hours a day are at lowest risk for respiratory problems. The authors believe it could be because dogs that are inside track less dirt. More exposure to dirt leads to more exposure to different types of bacteria, which can help strengthen the immune system.

This is only the latest finding showing how pets can make us healthier. For more health benefits of having an animal, click through the slideshow.

Loading Slideshow...
  • May Protect Against Respiratory Infection

    Research in mice presented just last month at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology suggested that dust taken from dog-owning homes could help to <a href="" target="_hplink">protect against respiratory syncytial virus</a> (RSV), which is known to increase asthma risk. "Mice fed dust did not exhibit symptoms associated with RSV-mediated airway infection, such as inflammation and mucus production," study researcher Kei Fujimura, of the University of California, San Francisco, said <a href="" target="_hplink">in a statement</a>. "They also possessed a distinct gastrointestinal bacterial composition compared to animals not fed dust."

  • Make Your Heart Adaptable

    A study published earlier this year in the <em>American Journal of Cardiology</em> shows that for people with chronic diseases, having a pet is linked with the <a href="" target="_hplink">heart's capability to adapt</a> to any number of circumstances that can affect the body (like increasing heartbeat speed during a stressful moment). Reuters reported that the <a href="" target="_hplink">people who owned pets</a> had heart rates that changed more than people who didn't own pets -- meaning the heart rates were more adaptable.

  • Lower Workplace Stress

    Bringing Fido to the workplace could help to <a href="" target="_hplink">lower your stress levels</a> <em>and</em> increase your job satisfaction, according to a study in the <em>International Journal of Workplace Health Management</em>. "Pet presence may serve as a low-cost, wellness intervention readily available to many organizations and may enhance organizational satisfaction and perceptions of support," study researcher Randolph T. Barker, Ph.D., a professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University, said <a href="" target="_hplink">in a statement</a>. "Of course, it is important to have policies in place to ensure only friendly, clean and well-behaved pets are present in the workplace," he said.

  • Boost Self-Esteem

    People with pets have more self-esteem and feel less lonely than people without pets, according to a study in the <em>Journal of Personality and Social Psychology</em>. The <em>Daily Mail</em> reported that pet-owners are also, generally, <a href="" target="_hplink">less fearful and more extroverted</a> than their non pet-owning peers. "Pets can serve as important sources of social support, providing many positive psychological and physical benefits for their owners," the researchers <a href="" target="_hplink">wrote in the study</a>.

  • Calm Blood Pressure

    When a person is stressed, the social support that comes from having a pet could help to lower blood pressure, according to a 2001 study in the journal <em>Hypertension</em>. The study, conducted by State University of New York at Buffalo researchers, showed that among people who were already taking ACE inhibitors for high blood pressure, having a pet seemed to help to <a href="" target="_hplink">stabilize blood pressure levels</a> during moments of stress. "This study shows that if you have high blood pressure, a pet is very good for you when you're under stress, and pet ownership is especially good for you if you have a limited support system," study researcher Karen Allen, Ph.D., said <a href="" target="_hplink">in a statement</a>.

  • Lower Death Risk From Heart Attack

    WebMD reported that <a href="" target="_hplink">owning a cat</a> is linked with a lower risk of dying after a heart attack, according to a study presented in 2008 at the annual meeting of the American Stroke Association. The study, which included almost 4,500 people, showed that owning a cat is linked with a 40 percent lower risk of <a href="" target="_hplink">death after a heart attack</a> and a 30 percent lower risk of dying from other heart problems like heart failure, heart disease and stroke, WebMD reported.

  • Protect Against Allergies

    Kids' future <a href="" target="_hplink">allergy risk</a> goes down if they lived with a pet during infancy, according to a study published last year in the journal <em>Clinical & Experimental Allergy</em>, reported. The researchers told that they think the protective effect may be because the <a href="" target="_hplink">immune system is strengthened</a> from the pet-related allergens and bacteria.

  • Ward Off Depression

    Having a pet could protect men with AIDS from <a href="" target="_hplink">developing depression</a>, according to University of California, Los Angeles research. Specifically, depression was three times more likely to be reported by men with AIDS who didn't have pets, compared with those who did have pets, researchers said. "Pet ownership among men who have AIDS provides a certain level of companionship that helps them cope better with the stresses of their lives," study researcher Judith Siegel said in a statement. "This is one more study that demonstrates the health benefits that owning a pet can provide."

  • Boost Oxytocin

    Just petting a dog could help to boost levels of the "feel good" hormones <a href="" target="_hplink">oxytocin and serotonin</a> in your body and decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, MSNBC reported. The research, conducted by scientists at the University of Missouri-Columbia, also showed that just <a href="" target="_hplink">petting a dog</a> for 15 minutes to a half hour was able to lower blood pressure by 10 percent, MSNBC reported.

  • Dogs Give Major Health Benefits, Cesar Millan

    Pet expert Cesar Millan talks about the many health benefits of owning a dog.